Review: This ‘Holmes’ is not where the heart is

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

While the recent flock of Sherlock Holmes re-interpreters all seem compelled to put a new twist on the character, “Mr. Holmes” promises a deeper and more faithful examination of the iconic detective. But in so doing, the film loses the essence of Holmes’ appeal as much as any seemingly more radical reinvention.

The film interweaves three timelines, focusing primarily on a Holmes (Ian McKellen) in his twilight years, cantankerous about the potboiler novels his former partner, John Watson, has based on their exploits. Holmes’ failing mind slowly flashes back to his search for a memory-reinforcing drug in Japan and his shattering final case, even as he pursues a significantly more pedestrian investigation in his own backyard.

Director Bill Condon rejects the slick modern storytelling of the BBC’s “Sherlock” series for a more mannered, traditional gravitas. And Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, based on a 2005 novel by Mitch Cullin, feels almost like an intentional inversion of another recent Holmes adaptation. Where Guy Ritchie’s two “Sherlock Holmes” movies played up brawny, boneheaded action that felt dishonest to the source material, “Mr. Holmes” retreats too far in the opposite direction as it delves into the character’s tortured psyche.

The film is a rebuke to the detective’s famous emphasis on logic, showing how Holmes’ disregard for human emotion left him a lonely old man. It’s a fairly compelling tale, but the intrigue we expect of a Holmes story is conspicuously lacking, even with three different mysteries unfurling onscreen.

The greatest intrigue here is in McKellen’s exceptional performance, which only adds another layer of frustration to the experience. The actor expertly portrays Holmes as both a haunted, doddering senior and his poised, sharper younger self, creating a character both acerbic and deeply sympathetic. If only we could see him pursuing a real caper, rather than unpacking his own psychological baggage.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer

‘Mr. Holmes’


Rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking

Running time: 104 minutes