A sly, gently reflective backward glance at key moments in a life that might have been, Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes (2015) trades ambition for modesty and heart, qualities that constantly keep it afloat, though a marvellous central performance by Ian McKellen doesn’t hurt the overall impression either. Bound to be seen by too few, this endearing flirtation with the fictitious enforced retirement of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, combines mildly diverting mystery alongside eccentric character detailing. Tending to his bees and generally irritating his latest housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), Holmes is a creaky, irritable old soul, haunted for decades by a case that forced him into a premature abandoning of his detective skills for the expanses of a quiet rural retreat.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mr. Holmes shares some of the rambling gait of Holmes himself, flittering between the old master’s interactions with Mrs. Munro’s young son Roger (Milo Parker) and buried recollections that occasionally swim to the surface of his conscious mind to tease and entice with their intimations of beauty and pain. The film feels awkwardly drawn along lines of anecdotal episodes whilst tempering these occasionally whimsical propensities with a mystery – involving a beautiful woman in distress unsurprisingly – that never develops into anything particularly riveting, even at its resolution. It’s all a bit tame, in other words, yet the film is nevertheless an almost constant delight.
The support players are solid as a rock, especially Linney and youngster Parker as the inquisitive youngster attempting to help Holmes decode the intermittently regurgitated shards of memory. Meanwhile, holding it all together through his presence in every scene is McKellen who proves to be the perfect embodiment of the crotchety Holmes and whose dismissive gaze upon the world hides a deep-seated, ultimately very moving loneliness. Condon’s handling of the final scenes avoids any sentimentality and the film’s final image is all the more dignified for it, whilst composer Carter Burwell, whose done fine work for Condon in the past on films such as Gods and Monsters (1998) and especially Kinsey (2004), provides a low-key and measured contribution, replicating his signature style with typical class and restraint.