Director: Bill Condon
Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney
2 (out of 5) Globes
Much like his directorial debut “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh,” Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes” features bees. Lots and lots of bees. Stretches of it feel like “Ulee’s Gold,” only with Ian McKellen’s elderly Sherlock Holmes at the helm, tending to the sting-y insects as a way to while away retirement. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” it’s a work of fan fiction, speculating on what would have happened to not the Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories but rather a fictional real-life version of same whose exploits had inspired Watson to write stories that made him famous. That’s one meta level too many for a film that’s actually quite simple, and actually quite small.
McKellen plays Holmes at two periods. In the main story, it’s 1947 and the nonagenarian sleuth, in pretty solid old age makeup, is doing little but tending to his bees and pestering his new housekeeper (Laura Linney, doing much with not much of a role). Grouchy and emotionally remote, he winds up coaxed out of his shell by that old cliche: the young moppet, namely her young son (Milo Parker). He’s also haunted by what became his final case — one that didn’t go as well as the one preserved in quasi-fiction by the long departed Watson.
In this latter bit lie the makings of a reflection on remorse in the face of encroaching death, plus insecurity over one’s true, boring self not matching the exciting legend. It wants to be a mood piece in a minor key, gently grazing over feelings hard to convey through mere story. And it has an ideal Holmes. At this point McKellen can convey the infinite through doing not much at all, his open face able to portray any emotion you wish upon it. As Holmes visits Japan, observing the ravages of Hiroshima, it’s not merely fiction invading our world but a classic character being expanded in ways one would never have imagined.
And yet the film itself is more tasteful than melancholic — a grandma movie that treads into uncomfortable places before retreating to the safe, the reassuring and the sleepy. Condon, of “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey,” started out in trash entertainment, and recently dipped back into it, helming the final two “Twilight”s with invisible workmanship. Here he goes back to respectable, but only a generic version of same. His writing tends to be analytical but in a way that offers Intelligence, not intelligence — the kind that doesn’t force the viewer to do any work. Condon didn’t write the script to “Mr. Holmes,” but it has that same self-satisfied pallor as his other work — that sense that its meager smarts are just smart enough for these purposes. It wants to take an established icon to strange places only to shrug into a light mystery, with a plot that, once it rears its head in the final third, would have seemed too elementary even for Encyclopedia Brown.