Ian McKellen Unravels the Mystery of the Literary Icon in ‘Mr. Holmes’

In Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen presents three different Sherlocks: the brilliant detective he once was, the 93-year-old man in mental decline, and the inescapable character created by John Watson.

“Is that him?” a woman eagerly asks as Sherlock Holmes passes her on his way home from the train station. She, like most people in this film (and likely in the audience), is enamored with the Holmes depicted in stories and on screen. As Laura Linney (who plays Mrs. Munro) notes in the Blu-ray extras, Holmes is a larger-than-life character whose powers of observation and deduction are perceived as his “superpower”.

But who, exactly, is the real Sherlock Holmes? According to this film, the man (who is portrayed as a real person, not a fictional character) differs greatly from the mythic creation the public has come to admire.

Throughout Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen deals with three distinctive Sherlocks. The one of greatest concern, who receives the majority of the film’s focus, is the retired Holmes. In 1947, 93-year-old Holmes suffers from mental decline; before he dies, he must achieve closure regarding his final case — the one that led to his self-exile (or “retirement”) in the country to tend bees. Remembering what happened during this final case ostensibly provides the mystery to be solved by the film’s conclusion, but the real case involves Holmes trying to come to terms with himself. The elderly former detective is haunted by his image as the hero of John Watson’s stories, and he wants to set the record straight. He also realizes that he may have precious little time in which to do so.

The second Holmes is his younger self, the man who, in flashbacks, is supremely confident in his deductive abilities. When he is self-satisfied after a case, he lounges in his red dressing gown, a superior smile on his face. However, when he realizes that he has failed his last client, a melancholy Holmes catatonically refuses to move from the divan. To boost his friend’s morale, John Watson (no more than a shadowy figure in this film) makes Holmes the hero in the story of the detective’s latest case. This revisionist history, however, leads to estrangement between the long-time friends. Seeing Holmes’ moods vary greatly with the way his cases turn out helps audiences to understand Sherlock’s bleak pronouncements that “I have been alone all my life” or, in hindsight, “After all those years, John did not know me at all.”

The third Holmes is the character created by Watson: a dashing hero who solves cases admirably. The detective’s legend built on Watson’s published stories results in Sherlock Holmes becoming a character in movies. While in London to collect his late brother Mycroft’s belongings, Holmes ventures into a cinema to see his alter ego on screen. The film version, wearing a deerstalker and smoking a pipe (each what Holmes calls “an embellishment of the illustrator”), is even more heroic and handsome than in Watson’s prose. The real Holmes is amused when his cinematic counterpoint, after preventing a murder, gallantly strolls off into the London fog.

Although Holmes’ determination to write the true story of his final case provides the framework for juxtaposing scenes set in 1947 with those set 30 years earlier, the real “A” story is the detective’s search for himself — who he really was, is, and will soon become.

The “bee” story, if you will, revolves around the real as well as symbolic relationship between bees and wasps. The first scene introduces this theme, which recurs throughout the film, and the film ends with a conversation about the nature of bees.

During Holmes’ journey home after a trip abroad, he is seated across from a woman and her young son who, as she tells Holmes, is fond of bees and fascinated by the insect clinging to the train’s window. Holmes waspishly explains that the boy is looking at a wasp, which is quite different from a bee. The retired detective’s sour face relaxes into almost a smile, however, the closer he gets to home. Even before he visits his study, what he terms his “sanctum sanctorum,” he heads to the apiary, where he gently tells the bees, “Home at last. Home at last.” Holmes may not be sweet as honey even at home, but his deductive stings have far less venom as he ages.

The bees vs. wasps theme colors Holmes’ relationships in his old age, and the film peppers several scenes with information about bees or wasps. Whereas honey bees may sting, they die after doing so. Not so the wasp, which may sting multiple times. Bees are generally more beneficial. In addition to honey, they produce the medicinal royal jelly that Holmes first tests as a way to aid his failing memory. Holmes is very much interested in bees, but he also has to face up to wasps at key points in the plot.

To attempt to deduce what may help him retain mental acuity, Holmes attacks his medical problem scientifically by studying possible remedies and then testing them on himself. He ventures to Japan to visit Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who helps him locate the prickly ash plant that, Holmes believes, may stem his memory loss. Upon their parting, Umezaki presents Holmes with a paperweight in which, he says, local bee specimens have been preserved. Only later does Holmes realize that, instead of being a benign, helpful “bee” Umezaki is a “wasp” with an ulterior motive for inviting Holmes to Japan.

Bees also become the catalyst for Holmes’ unlikely role as mentor to his housekeeper’s son, Roger (Milo Parker). At first, Roger seems to be merely another hero-worshiping reader of Watson’s stories. Holmes, however, understands the boy’s intelligence and eagerness to learn. He opens his library to Roger but, more importantly, tutors him to think logically and to take over responsibility for the apiary.

Bees even become the victims of a murder mystery, and Holmes and Roger try to deduce what is killing their favorite insects. Roger’s devotion to this grandfather figure — and, by extension, the bees — forces him as well as Holmes to confront deadly wasps that could destroy them both. Through this theme of bees and wasps, Holmes, Mrs. Munro, and Roger become a family as they begin to share the sweetness and stings of life.

Perhaps only a film icon like McKellen could so flawlessly endear audiences to an aged, vulnerable Holmes. Like the character he portrays, McKellen pays attention to detail; his expressions, posture, walk, and strength of voice dramatically differentiate between the Holmes undertaking what will become his final case and the beekeeping retiree. Yet, even though Holmes carries himself differently at different times of his life, he is still the same man. McKellen allows audiences to see the younger man’s sly smiles in the older man’s genuine laughter. Holmes’ brilliance in deducing information from his observations is transformed into the 93-year-old’s determination to take on the “case” of mental deterioration and thoroughly, scientifically deduce what may work.

Throughout the film, McKellen’s portrayal reflects the familiar Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon stories while making the character his own. Considering the number of adaptations of Holmes in the past century, that is quite impressive.

McKellen is backed by a talented cast, including Laura Linney as the embittered Mrs. Munro. After losing her husband in the war, she’s especially fearful of losing her son, but she’s unable to offer him the intellectual stimulation that Holmes can provide. It’s a role that Linney handles easily; like McKellen, she excels in making the little details count. When Mrs. Munro and Mr. Holmes acknowledge their mutual devotion to Roger, they do so not with words but with the simple action of clasping hands.

Milo Parker already has the instincts of a veteran actor. His Roger often acts older than his years and quickly becomes Holmes’ “partner in crime”. Whereas Holmes can offer the boy attention and information, Roger provides his mentor with acceptance, even after Holmes nearly sets the house ablaze. The script allows these characters to grow emotionally, and the actors make their characters’ gradual changes believable.

The English countryside is beautifully filmed, from lush fields to the startlingly white chalk cliffs by the sea. Although Mitch Cullen’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, provides the plot from which the script was developed and offers intriguing insights into Holmes’ mind that a film cannot include, this film adaptation enriches the story. Everything — the set dressing and props within Holmes’ study, intimate close-ups within the cozy cottage, long shots capturing the country’s natural beauty, original score with ponderous strings offset by an uplifting clarinet solo — creates an inviting world audiences will want to (re)visit.

The only downfall with this Blu-ray set is the quality of the extras. Two “featurettes” (each under three minutes) tease viewers with sound bites from the actors, director Bill Condon, or script writer Jeffrey Hatcher. Condon commends McKellen for his portrayal, noting that the actor is “an icon playing an icon”. Brief glimpses from behind the camera while a scene is being filmed only increase the audience’s desire to see more.

So much is suggested in these snippets that it’s a shame that the Blu-ray does not include a “behind-the-scenes” or “making of” documentary or interviews with the cast and creative team. The extras could have been as richly rewarding as the film, but “Mr. Holmes: The Icon” and “Mr. Holmes: The Story” seem more like extended trailers than the promised featurettes. These and the theatrical trailer are the only extras.

Nevertheless, Mr. Holmes is a film that can stand on its own and provides that rare quality in a Sherlock Holmes adaptation: a new interpretation.

RATING 8 / 10