For nearly as long as they've been making movies, they've been making movies about Sherlock Holmes. Initially appearing in print in 1887, Holmes first hit the screen in 1900, and since then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective has been portrayed in more than 220 films. So why does a brilliant, rude, and occasionally drug-addled narcissist continue to resonate among those a century removed from his inception? As with most antiheroes, Holmes' positive qualities are overtly enviable, his bad behavior is secretly thrilling, and he always gets his man. (Except for that one time he was outsmarted, but it was by a woman, thank you very much.) By this point the Holmes character is in the public domain, which means that anyone is free to craft a Sherlock Holmes tale. And while many details must be held sacred, there's still a little room to riff.
Based on Mitch Cullin's 2005 novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind," the lovely but frustrating "Mr. Holmes" imagines the great detective in 1947 as an elderly man, now retired to a farmhouse in Sussex. As played by the peerless Ian McKellen, Holmes spends his days condescending to his put-upon housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and trying in vain to ignore the increasingly obvious physical and mental signs of being 93 years old. Holmes has swapped out cocaine and opium for potential anti-aging remedies like royal jelly and prickly ash, the former of which also helps to occupy his time with beekeeping. It's through tending to the bees and demonstrating his legendary powers of deduction that Holmes befriends Mrs. Munro's preteen son Roger (Milo Parker), assuring his annoyed mother that "Exceptional children are often the product of unremarkable parents."
A quest for prickly ash has recently taken Holmes to still-smoldering Hiroshima, and besides the flashback scenes exploring the mysterious connection between Holmes and his Japanese host, Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), the film's overstuffed plot also incorporates a thread recounting Holmes' final investigation, just after World War I. Holmes' fading memory has forgotten the particulars of the case involving the melancholy, secretive Ann (a poignant Hattie Morahan), her concerned husband, and an elegantly eerie glass armonica, and much of "Mr. Holmes" centers around our hero trying to remember what happened with Ann and why it affected the notoriously detached detective so deeply. Meanwhile, Holmes and the widowed Mrs. Munro engage in a power struggle over Roger's attention and respect, the fatherless boy clearly craving a male presence, and the brainy, manipulative coot not without agenda.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that even under some occasionally distracting old-man latex, McKellen is superb as Holmes, paying proper homage to the icon's entrenched quirks (i.e., selfishness, awful manners, etc.) while portraying the man as a flesh-and-blood mortal keenly aware of that mortality. Holmes could never be lovable, and McKellen thankfully refrains from playing him that way in the scenes where Holmes befriends young Roger, the two meeting on a Holmesian intellectual level rather than the heart-tugging plane to which most movies would resort. (But we also learn that the late Dr. Watson, the one who memorialized Holmes' exploits, is responsible for "a million misconceptions" about Holmes, so who knows what's accurate?) Linney's role initially seems dowdy and thankless, but as more of Mrs. Munro's backstory is revealed, the levelheaded housekeeper becomes a fine foil for her cantankerous boss.
"Mr. Holmes" finds McKellen reteaming with his "Gods & Monsters" director Bill Condon, a pairing that brought both of them Oscar nominations (and a screenwriting win for Condon). But they're a little less successful this time out, even though the film is technically well-crafted, from the gorgeous period production design to the postcard-pretty cinematography to composer Carter Burwell’s wistful, distinctive score. There's just too much going on, with dueling flashbacks as well as a couple present-day plotlines, and Condon, along with screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, is unable to convey why any of it truly matters, either to Holmes or, by extension, to us. Holmes excelled at his job because he is remote, aloof, and even though he may grapple with tinges of regret, he's ultimately and entirely self-serving. That's not much to hang your hat on, but we wouldn't want him any other way.