Trying to count up the number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the past several decades would be a Herculean task somewhat comparable to trying to determine how many adaptations there have been of Shakespeare’s plays. We’ve seen numerous actors portray the infamous detective, including Basil Rathbone, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cushing, and more recently, Robert Downey Jr. However, these various adaptations usually have one thing in common: almost all of them have to do with Holmes and Watson working on a particular case in which we see them go about collecting clues and eventually solving the mystery. What we never seem to see is the great detective in his later years, an exploration of what Holmes would do when it came time for him to retire, which made it a splendid idea to adapt Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” (changed to “Mr. Holmes” for the film) that covers that very subject.
As the film opens in 1947, we find Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen) returning from a trip to Japan where he has acquired a special plant that supposedly helps with degenerative diseases. He lives with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), and spends much of his time tending to the bees on his property. Recently he has been trying to recall the details of the last case he ever worked on, but it’s rather difficult given the state of his 93-year-old mind. He slowly remembers pieces of the case, writing it all down just the way it happened (as opposed to the heavily-fictionalized way that Dr. Watson used to present their cases). The story catches the attention of Roger, who forms a special relationship with Holmes and learns a lot about beekeeping in the process. As we learn more about the case, which involved a woman who had two miscarriages, we learn more about the circumstances that brought Holmes to where he is today, and why he felt the need to retire into exile all those years ago.
As somewhat explained above, those who go into “Mr. Holmes” expected a typical mystery as told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will be a bit surprised to find that this is not your average Holmes affair. As to whether said viewer will be disappointed by this fact is a matter somewhat up for debate. “Mr. Holmes” does have a mystery to offer, but it’s just a small part of what ends up being a tapestry of the character in his later years. The film jumps back and forth between the mystery, which occurred decades earlier, Holmes’ recent trip to Japan, and the present, where he forms his relationship with young Roger. While this may have seemed like a good idea, one that could have lent it a little variety, it actually ends up holding the film back from being as successful as it might otherwise have been.
For starters, Holmes’ trip to Japan to collect Prickly Ash is rather uneventful, culminating in his host blaming him for his father abandoning them to go and live in England, though Holmes claims to have never known the man. Meanwhile, the film tries to make up for a certain sluggish pace in the present by having Holmes connect with Roger through beekeeping and the story of his last case, but this merely leaves you wishing that it would concentrate on the case more as Holmes slowly remembers the details from so long ago.
The mystery itself is a rather interesting one. A man seeks out Holmes’ help after his wife starts acting strange. She has suffered through two miscarriages and has been taking lessons on the glass harmonica, a skill she started to devote herself to. However, Holmes finds out that there’s something else going on, something a little more simple than her husband expects. It may not be the fully-formed mystery that Doyle laid out in his classic tales, but it ends up being the most engaging part of the film overall. It’s just a shame that it takes a rather long time for it all to finally come together, after having made us sit through rather unnecessary parts of Holmes’ trip to Japan and the intriguing, though not entirely satisfying, relationship between Holmes and Roger.
That being said, what very nearly rescues the film regardless is the brilliant performance from Sir Ian McKellen as the titular detective. It’s strange that this pairing of actor and part never came up before, but we can be very glad that it finally did. It’s fascinating to watch him go from playing the role with such panache and confidence in the scenes in which he is working on his last case, to the feeble old man who has trouble remembering the simplest things like names (which he resorts to writing down on his cuffs). He has complete command of the character at all times and it merely becomes a delight to watch a master of the craft do his thing. It just becomes a bit of a shame that he wasn’t given slightly better material to work with, for then this could have been something supremely special.
Taking its structure into consideration, “Mr. Holmes” simply needed a little tweaking to allow the mystery to become the focal point of the story. That’s not saying that his elder years should have been eliminated, just trimmed down a bit so as to act as connective tissue in support of the main storyline. It was certainly an intriguing idea to take a look at Holmes much later in his life than we’re used to seeing him, but it would appear that this just wasn’t quite the right story to explore this little-seen area of the character, though, if we’ve learned anything from this outing, there’s no denying that they found the perfect actor to play him at this stage of his life.
“Mr. Holmes” arrives on Blu-ray in a 2.35:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The picture is stunningly crisp and clear, helping to bring out the gorgeous period detail strewn throughout the entire film. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally excellent, giving you all of the dialogue and Carter Burwell’s beautiful score in fantastic quality. Overall, the film has been given great treatment that leaves little room for complaint.
The Icon (2 Minutes): A very brief featurette, featuring snippets of interviews with the cast and crew discussing Sherlock Holmes.
The Story (3 Minutes): Another very brief featurette, this time featuring the cast and crew discussing the story.
Despite a brilliant performance from Sir Ian McKellen, “Mr. Holmes” is a little too scattered in its plot to leave much of an impact, merely making you wish that there had been more focus on its intriguing mystery and less on the less satisfying parts of the tale. There’s always a chance that fans of Sherlock Holmes will find something to enjoy here, even if it’s just McKellen’s amazing performance, but for those looking for an engaging tale featuring the infamous detective, unfortunately you’ll likely find yourself only partly content.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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