For the doubters among us who still believe Sherlock Holmes to be a fictional character, consider the sad and lovely Mr. Holmes. Ian McKellen, his face weathered and weary, eyes haunted with unfinished business, clearly doesn't think Holmes an imaginary hero, an eccentric make-believe sleuth popularized in magazines and books. To watch the actor, who plays the famous consulting detective of Victorian London in the long years after he retired and retreated to the countryside, is to see a gentleman with a lifetime of extraordinary experiences moving through his days. He is absolutely real.
He is also a man in profound pain: The memories of all those experiences, all those strange mysteries and exotic cases, are slipping from his mind.
McKellen's Holmes hobbles around a cottage in South Downs with a view of chalk cliffs and sea, tending to his bees. He is in his 90s and in increasingly fragile health. He treats his long-suffering housemaid, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), with, if not disdain, then distance. Yet, clearly he depends on her - and she him. Her son, the sparkling Roger (Milo Parker), pokes his nose into Holmes' affairs, sneaking into his study to read the manuscript the old man is trying to complete.
It is an account of his last case, the story of a woman, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), and her husband (Patrick Kennedy). The latter comes to Holmes' offices, concerned about his wife's odd behavior, asking him to investigate. Beautifully directed by Bill Condon - whose Gods and Monsters also starred McKellen - Mr. Holmes goes into flashback mode as its subject does: Holmes recalling details of the case and writing them down, as shards of memory come together.
Mr. Holmes is about how the past defines us. It is also very much about regret and trying to put things right. Holmes, the famous logician, comes to realize, too, that there is a place in human nature for emotion, for empathy. Identifying a problem with utmost clarity isn't always the same as solving that problem. To point to the source of someone's despair isn't the same as ridding that person of it.
If Mr. Holmes has a quiet, rueful aspect, the film can also be sly and amusing - and warmhearted. We watch Holmes take Roger under his wing. A visit to a London cinema finds Holmes watching in comic horror as an adaptation of one of his old cases, with its Basil Rathbone-like star, flickers on the screen. (Speaking of adaptations, Mr. Holmes is based on Mitch Cullin's 2005 novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind.)
More jarring, we see Holmes visiting Japan (in search of an herbal medicine to help with his memory), wandering the ruins of Hiroshima. And there are the flashbacks with the somewhat younger Holmes, shadowing the mysterious Mrs. Kelmot through London streets, ultimately taking a bench alongside her.
Their conversation would echo in the detective's mind for decades. The look of regret on old Sherlock's face is as authentic as it gets.
Directed by Bill Condon. With Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.EndText