Mr. Holmes is this season's typical popcorn fare in the sense that it revolves around an iconic character. But while most summer spectacles aim to further immortalize popular heroes, this film reflects on one's mortality. It's a powerful look at a larger-than-life figure shrunken by sickness.
Ian McKellen stars as the legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes, who is 93-years-old and on the edge of dementia when we first meet him in the film. Based on Mitch Cullin's novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, the story starts with the clever conceit that Holmes was a real detective whose investigations were spun into pulp fiction books by his partner, Dr. John Watson. The sleuth's signature hat, pipe and magnifying glass were merely "embellishments of an illustrator," he says.
Unlike so many summer blockbusters that feed our nostalgia for pop culture icons, Mr. Holmes strips away the image of Sherlock Holmes etched in our memories. The film presents a husk of the hero we know, revealing a frail, forgetful Holmes. It poignantly shows him using sleuthing skills to piece together his rapidly fading memory and save his own life.
A precocious boy named Roger (Milo Parker) keeps Holmes young, befriending the old man as he tries to rest and write in his rural Sussex home. Roger's mother (Laura Linney) is the housekeeper, looking at Holmes with much less admiration than her son. While Roger grows closer to him, she eagerly awaits Holmes' death, wanting to move to another house whose owners will be more grateful for her help.
Among other things, Holmes teaches Roger the ins and outs of beekeeping. His obsession with the bees comes from the hope that what they secrete — royal jelly — will remedy his weakness and memory loss. Perhaps Holmes is also drawn to the bees because they are like him — fierce yet fragile.
An air of melancholy subtly looms over the film like a gentle fog. Director Bill Condon aims for understated elegance rather than melodrama, raising the issue of Holmes' impending death without getting sappy about it. McKellen follows suit with his subdued performance, portraying Holmes as a soft-spoken, emotionally repressed man. Parker and Linney are effective as foils for Holmes, wearing the raw feelings on their sleeves that he struggles to reveal. We never see him express fear of his death, but he doesn't deny it either. He simply acknowledges it in a rational rather than emotional way. "Mourning is commonplace, logic is rare," the detective says.
Hollywood obviously doesn't want iconic characters to die. That's why Arnold Schwarzenegger keeps coming back as the Terminator, and it's also why Jurassic Park stays open despite the fact that its attractions keep eating tourists. In this age of endless sequels and reboots, it's refreshing to see a film that accepts the possibility of a popular character dying. Mr. Holmes exudes the confidence that its hero will live on in our memories if not on screen.