Although rare, one of the saddest phenomena in cinema is when a film seems to have everything going for it and still fails to reach its potential. The closer a film like this comes to hitting the bullseye, the more heartbreaking it is to see it fall short. Such is not only the premise for summer crime-drama Mr. Holmes, it is also this writer’s assessment of the film.
Directed by Bill Condon, the man behind films such as Chicago and the final two Twilight installments, Mr. Holmes is an adaptation of the novel by Mitch Cullen. Starring Ian McKellen as an aging Sherlock Holmes, the film serves as something of an epilogue to Arthur Conan Doyle’s series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. While I can think of no one better than McKellen to do justice to such a classic character as Holmes, the remainder of the film does the character something of a disservice.
Set many years after the conclusion of Sherlock Holmes’s famed adventures, the great detective finds himself amidst a deep personal struggle. While his mind was once considered one of the sharpest in the world, he has recently been suffering from severe memory issues. After traveling abroad and seeking arcane pseudo-medicines for his condition, he has retired to the countryside where he is attended by a Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger. While Holmes and Roger begin to bond, Holmes is impressed by the boy’s quick-wittedness, and the boy is fascinated by Sherlock’s adventures. However, Holmes begins to express a dissatisfaction with the documentation of his life. While he dearly treasures his now-deceased friend Watson, Holmes believes the way in which Watson wrote his stories has left Sherlock a false legacy. In particular, the documentation of his last case strikes Sherlock as being particularly false yet he cannot remember the case well enough to know what Watson changed. Together Roger and Sherlock retread the journey step-by-step and uncover the mystery of why Sherlock left the detective business for good.
On its surface the film sounds like it should have everything going for it. Stupendously-talented cast aside, it features one of literature’s most iconic characters in what appears to be a powerful, endearing and heartwarming struggle to come to terms with precisely who Sherlock Holmes is.
The issue is that, while the film has so much potential, it tends to focus on the wrong elements. Despite the film being called Mr. Holmes, a large focus of the movie is not on the detective but instead on his housekeeper and her son. While both are interesting characters in their own right, their stories simply aren’t as compelling. Mrs. Munro comes across as particularly unpleasant. Right from the start she is unreasonably hostile towards Sherlock and seems desperate to keep her son away from him for no discernible reason. While the film does eventually expand on her motivations, the whole arc feels very mean-spirited and resolves without so much as an apology.
The flaws aren’t limited to just the boy and his mother. Even the Holmes story itself feels rather slow-paced and disjointed. While the story is focused on him attempting to find stimuli to trigger his dormant memories, much of the film shows him languishing around despairingly and occasionally in pain. While emotional in small doses, these scenes occur so frequently that one could argue that they are portraying the outright suffering of Holmes with a heavy hand.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of the film that shine. The relationship between Holmes and Roger feels very genuine and dynamic and even aspects of Holmes’s sad existence in the present hit the right chords on occasion. It’s very easy to feel sympathy for the character and genuinely want him to succeed.
Where the film really shines, however, are the flashback scenes that detail what happened before the film. Shown sporadically to emulate the recoveries of dormant memories, these scenes show two pieces of backstory: one in Japan just prior to the film and one detailing Holmes’s last case. While the former never really goes anywhere and feels very much like an extra, filler conflict, the latter beautifully captures the spirit of Sherlock Holmes. The case evolves almost as though it were ripped straight from Doyle’s own pen, and McKellen truly brings his A-game to capture Sherlock in such a way that would make even Benedict Cumberbatch jealous.
While Mr. Holmes is riddled with small issues, when the film shines it shines very brightly. Had the film redirected its point of focus a little, it could easily have stood out among some of the greats. However the film just chose to place emphasis on the wrong things, ultimately doing a disservice to what is clearly a finely-crafted product. While striking dangerously close to the mark it falls short of what it easily could have been.
Overall Rating: 7/10