The detriments of age on a profound mind is the subject of Mr. Holmes, Bill Condon’s woefully dull take on the winter years of Sherlock Holmes’s life. The film, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, doesn’t center on Holmes (Ian McKellen) investigating some nefarious plot or trying to solve a grisly murder, but sitting down to write an account of a case that ended badly, taking up the mantle of writer from John Watson, who, in this world, wrote the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels as creative nonfiction. It’s a brazenly reflective role for McKellen, a student of behavior like the fictional sleuth, and his tempered, witty performance is just about the only part of the production that’s genuinely rousing. Thankfully, he’s in nearly every scene, and he gives a pulse to the film’s complacent view that those who write, play music, or practice any artistic occupation can use these outlets to overcome grief and memory loss, among other things. It’s an optimistic but speciously sentimental view of the power of expression as a whopping, vehement force, which Condon unfortunately matches with docile, bucolic imagery and little in the way of insight into how a creative or analytical mind works.
As Holmes attempts to remember the details of the story that led a client’s wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan), to kill herself, following the loss of her glass harp, he’s also attempting to settle a bit of a feud with Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Japanese man who searches for special plants for Holmes that might help his memory. In one scene, Tamiki finds a desperately needed plant in the aftermath of Hiroshima, a symbol of how death and tragedy can often spur expression and subsequently soothe painful memories, as it is this very plant that supposedly helps Holmes remember the roots of Tamiki’s father’s familial abandonment and Ann’s horrible death. Like Condon’s Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls, Mr. Holmes is ultimately about the power of art to work out grim and horrifying life events, a young woman’s loss of several children only being the most prominent. And yet the director barely conveys the details of learning, practicing, or personalizing an art form, how such immersive studies grow and augment over time. In effect, he ignores the delights and hardships of becoming an artist in lieu of simply presenting the long-touted liberating effects of art.
Most of the film’s scenes unravel in Holmes’s country home, which is looked after by Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker), and even here, Condon parallels the workaday struggle of Linney’s mother figure with her ability to teach and offer sage wisdom to Holmes and Roger, who begins emulating the cold, clinical investigative mind of the retired investigator. The most pervasive symbol, however, is the beehive that Holmes fervently tends to, and the script reiterates the differences between a bee and a wasp, the former of which leaves its stinger in. Of course, Condon means to say that great artists leave a bit of themselves in their art, whereas the more aggressive and lesser talented ones give nothing of themselves to their creations. It’s easy to glean that Condon means to be the former, and one can see where he might have seen a bit of himself in the story, but by the visual evidence of what he adds to Holmes’s story here, the director is undoubtedly with the wasps.