Mr. Holmes certainly sounds intriguing when you first hear the elevator pitch for it. A long since retired, elderly Sherlock Holmes setting out to solve one last case from his haunted past, while desperately trying to combat the steadily worsening symptoms of senility, starring Ian McKellen of all people as Holmes? Who wouldn’t be completely hooked after hearing that. It sounds absolutely exhilarating.
I really do like McKellen in this. He does a very convincing job of portraying Holmes in both his twilight years as well as Holmes when he was still in his prime. The contrast between the two is very striking, and it really works remarkably well when you for the first time transition from the increasingly dementia ridden Holmes to when he was still solving cases in London, after Watson had left to marry. It’s actually a bit shocking how distinctive the difference is, it really makes you appreciate just how damn fine actor McKellen is. A small independent, character driven movie such as this is only as strong as its main lead and on that front, McKellen does not disappoint.
As far as the premise goes, there’s plenty of novelty in Holmes, at the advanced age of 93, trying to crack a case that led him to retire as a detective. The fact that he’s so old and fragile now and can barely recall all the details of his investigation anymore make it questionable if he is even able to crack the case before his health deteriorates so badly that it becomes impossible and that palpable tension lends the story all the necessary air of importance and uncertainty that every good mystery needs. More the pity then that while the movie certainly has its charms, ultimately the plot fails to impress or satisfy you with its conclusion. There really isn’t anything wrong with the picture per se, it’s quite lovely little independent movie. It’s just that the mystery around which entire story revolves turns out to be entirely disappointing in the end. While the big twist surrounding the answer to Holmes’ last case is actually a pretty clever, finding out the secret can’t help but be a bit too underwhelming after all the preceding build up. And there is nothing worse in a mystery story than going “wait, that’s it?” once you have all questions answered.
To his credit, McKellen almost is able to make you get past the initial disappointment thanks to his strong delivery and performance. There is such horrible, almost soul crushing vurnability in his voice when it’s revealed in excruciating detail just why the case ended up being so haunting to him that it drove him to retirement, but it’s just not enough. The revelation and the true nature of the twist feels a bit, well, weak. Even though you know the full context and can very well understand why everything happened the way it did and why it had such a major impact on Holmes, I just don’t quite buy it. It doesn click right with me.
Fortunately, the secondary plots about Holmes’s deteriorating health and his attempts to revive his memory, as well as his budding friendship with the son of his housekeeper manage to balance out most of the negative output of the lackluster central mystery. It’s a bit sad in a tragicomical way that the secondary mini-mystery concerning Holmes’ bees dying in the present time ends up being far more satisfying than the actual major mystery that the movie spends most of its running time investigating.
You don’t quite get the kind of movie you go in expecting but it’s got a lot of heart and the ending ought to leave you smiling, so I would certainly file this one under the okay category.