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An Aging And Soulful 'Mr. Holmes' Puts A New Spin On Sherlock

Ian McKellen in <em>Mr. Holmes</em>.
Agatha A. Nitecka
Miramax/Roadside Attractions
Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes.

For a man said to possess neither the appetite nor the skills required for human connection, Sherlock Holmes has, in most of his incarnations, enjoyed a solid support system, haters included. Well, forget that: The team and the haters are all gone in Bill Condon's bittersweetly revisionist Mr. Holmes. Watson appears only from the waist down — don't ask. Dear, departed Mrs. Hudson is succeeded by Mrs. Munro, the dour housekeeper (a very good Laura Linney, albeit struggling with a Sussex twang) with whom the long-retired sleuth shares his seaside cottage, along with his beloved bees and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker), a significantly fatherless elf who shows early investigative promise. As for Moriarty and Lestrade, they don't get a look-in.

Not having read Mitch McCullin's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, adapted for the movie by Jeffrey Hatcher, I can't tell whether the author meant to close the door at last on the endlessly renewable line of Sherlocks. That's not about to happen, but Condon's movie is certainly out to bust a few myths. Gone are the pipe and the deerstalker, neither of which were Arthur Conan Doyle's invention. Gone is 221b Baker Street: Someone made it up, to Holmes' disgust. There's not a trace of morphine or cocaine, nor would there be: Now 91 years old, Holmes, played with amused relish by Ian McKellen, is just back from Japan bearing a plant that is said to refresh his ailing memory.

Shuffling and wheezing, his mouth sagging downward into an Anton Ego pout, McKellen's Sherlock is a grumpy, decrepit geezer. The once razor-sharp mind is showing wear and tear. Holmes remains a stickler for facts and detail: "I've never had much use for imagination," he says with disdain for the heroic stories into which Watson has condensed their cases. But unlike the Cumberbatch Sherlock and many others, he's not defined by a lack of feeling. In fact, the one thing this Holmes has in spades is a soul, though it is rather unwell because he's ashamed of having failed to solve a long-ago case when, as a spry 60-something in top hat and morning coat, he tried to help an unhappy young woman (Hattie Morahan) who was distraught over the death of her unborn babies.

There are other threads, too, but plotting is no more germane in Mr. Holmes than it was the last time McKellen and Condon worked together on the terrific Gods and Monsters, an acerbic, tender and riotously funny take on the last days of gay horror director James Whale, who made the now-classic Bride of Frankenstein. Both films turn on the cruel indignities of encroaching old age and wistful regret for paths not taken. But Gods and Monsters was about a man who has no idea that the B-movies he had fun making would one day be considered works of genius. Mr. Holmes lays out the predicament of a man who lived for his work and has been called a genius all his life, only to discover that on a human level he's been a heedless fool.

Compared to the joyfully raunchy Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes is strictly PG. But its themes and shifting moods are adult and achingly moving. Along with all the sighs and grunts, McKellen gives Sherlock a rich inner life troubled by moral and existential doubts. The far more worldly Sherlocks rendered by Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone lacked the emotional equipment to fret over such qualms for a second. That is this Holmes' pathos, and in making him a frail, fallible old man with regrets, the movie risks losing the countless moviegoers who worshipped Sherlock the Unfeeling, who got the job done every time and mowed happily over the feelings of others.

This Holmes must confront the one mystery not even he can solve — the mystery of other people. Holmes' insistence on just the facts has blinded him to the suffering and loneliness of others, and his own. Sentimentally perhaps, he's given one last case to solve, and at least one team to love and honor. But if the last moments of Mr. Holmes have all the trappings of another cheesy Hollywood ending, McKellen makes them feel like a benediction.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.