In the canon of famous literary characters, few have been so gleefully adulterated over the years as Sherlock Holmes.
The brilliant, eccentric "consulting detective," first conceived of by Arthur Conan Doyle in the1880s, has proved irresistible to countless other writers trying their hands at Holmesian-style tales, among many other multimedia adventurers.
In the famous series of mystery films of the '40s, Holmes was enlisted in the fight against Hitler. Two popular current TV series (the marvelous Sherlock, and Elementary) update Holmes to the present day.
So, the new movie, Mr. Holmes, joins a longstanding tradition of adapting the character to suit the needs of a new author or agenda, presenting an elderly Holmes in retirement attempting to solve one last case.
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Based on the Mitch Cullin novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, it reunites star Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon, almost two decades after their successful collaboration on Gods And Monsters.
It is, in many ways, a lovely, lyrical film about aging, loss, and redemption, although it settles for an overall tone of wistfulness, instead of the deeper resonance it might have had.
The framing story begins in 1947, with McKellen's craggy, truly ancient-seeming Holmes returning to his stone farm cottage and bee hives on the Sussex Downs after a trip to postwar Japan. Retired from detecting for the past twenty-five years, he's gone to Japan in search of a rare herbal compound he hopes will improve his declining mental faculties.
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After years of enduring Dr. Watson's fictions about him, Holmes is determined to write a story of his own.
Holmes' household is run by his Irish housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, whose young son, Roger (Milo Parker) is an avid reader and fan of Watson's stories.
But in addition to simply telling his story, Holmes is struggling against his diminishing powers to remember what happened in his last and only unsolved case—and why it was the reason he quit the profession.
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The cross-currents underlying the plot are not always clear, nor is the central encounter of the film the emotional epiphany it needs to be.
(But there is a sly in-joke at the cinema with Holmes watching a black-and-white film about his exploits where the onscreen Holmes is played by actor Nicholas Rowe—who starred in Young Sherlock Holmes back in 1985.)
Mr. Holmes is a thoughtful, atmospheric addition to Holmesiana. Still, I hope the next time the movies want to do something really original with Sherlock Holmes, they discover the novels of Laurie King.