By Tom Platt. Far from the Guy Richie flurry of slow motion martial arts, the eloquently straight forward Mr. Holmes walks, cane in hand, toward some very real questions. Prim, proper, and ever so tidy, the film does what it does well, with no desire for risk or eccentricities.
With his wits about him but his memory fading, a ninety-three-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen) has been hiding away at his quiet cottage by the sea tending to his bees and trying tirelessly to recall the last case he ever took in hopes of finally writing a story of his own using only the facts. With thirty years passed since his retirement, it appears the only company our illustrious detective has kept is the contemptuous housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her eager-to-learn son, Roger (Milo Parker).
Mr. Holmes is told with the help of flashbacks from two separate timelines. First and most prevalent is a direct reenactment of the story Sherlock is trying to write. It carries us through the plotline nicely, offering the deductions that everyone came to see, as well as a direct representation of Holmes’ frustrating battle with memory loss. Thirty years on, the broad strokes of the case come sporadically through his increasingly clouded memory, portraying a frustrated Sherlock Holmes in the throes of some great regret that he can hardly remember.
These intense feelings of remorse without a logical explanation lead the former detective to Hiroshima, Japan only a few weeks prior to our main storyline. The year is 1947, and Holmes finds himself wandering through a once-thriving forest that was decimated just a few years earlier by the atomic bomb. Holmes wanders the ashes of this once fertile land in search of a small tree that may help with his degenerative memory. A very literal interpretation: the once great detective walks through the desolation of his own mind in search of some clue, some bit of logic to cling to in these confusing times.
While traversing three separate timelines, Mr. Holmes’ director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters) creates clear distinguishing road signs to make sure nobody in the theater gets lost. When flashing back to his final case Sherlock Holmes becomes noticeably younger. With the spots, the wheeze, and the limp all gone, and through the magic of acting (see Extras), Sir Ian McKellen creates two wholly separate experiences for the audience (while the flashbacks involving Japan couldn’t be confused for the English countryside if you had your eyes closed).
Far from the traditional series of deductions that Sherlock Holmes is known for, the search for clues finds a quieter and perhaps more realistic interpretation of detective work. None of the cases Holmes tackles in the film are particularly difficult logistically, and that is precisely what makes them so difficult for our hero. With an inability to deal in facts, the great detective must deal in emotion: he must attempt to find a logical connection between the illogical disparities of the human mind, and perhaps come to terms with something beyond explanation.
Through all of this interesting setup involving the greatest mind of a fictional generation, emotionally crippled by an event that he can’t even be sure happened, Mr. Holmes never ventures beyond this increasingly standard Baby Boomer-aimed sub-genre. Well-crafted or not, the film takes not even the slightest of steps outside the lines, perhaps in fear of startling its aging target audience. This fear does a disservice to the film as a whole: by dampening the scenes in which beautiful performances – carrying with them the anguish of human existence – could have really stuck with us, the film squanders its talents and plays out like a nice, safe therapy session.
The succinct nature in which it handles multiple timelines comes as both a blessing and a curse for Mr. Holmes. Unable to offer air to potentially powerful scenes for fear of missing one of the stepping stones of classic Hollywood cinema, Mr. Holmes leaves us saying nothing more than “Oh, well that was nice, I suppose.” A poignant question is raised, an answer is read aloud, and while it was a pleasant experience, it was far from stimulating.