The title character in “Mr. Holmes” does not shoot a weapon, punch a foe, kiss a woman, drive any sort of vehicle or exhibit repellant postmodern irony while deconstructing (rather than deducing) a case – which means, of course, he’s the real Sherlock Holmes.
Writer Jeffrey Hatcher and director Bill Condon, who adapt Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” stay faithful to the logic-bound hero of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories while expanding our understanding of him. With Ian McKellen in dour form as the stern, seldom-smiling protagonist, we get a better understanding of the characteristics that make the great man tick and make many others wince.
Roger Munro (Milo Parker), precocious son of Holmes’ housekeeper (Laura Linney), is not among those. He idolizes the 93-year-old sleuth in all his manifestations: wise beekeeper, surrogate grandfather and reluctant magician, who can tell a person’s occupation and preoccupations by observation.
“Do that thing you do,” he urges Holmes, who moved to the English coast 35 years ago so he could stop doing it. He failed terribly in his last case, which Dr. Watson had written up with a happy ending. Holmes decides to set the record straight, if his memory doesn’t fail.
That case involved a woman who lost two children during pregnancies and tried to assuage her grief by turning obsessively to music. Her husband, fearing that she was becoming unhinged, refused to let her take lessons; when she defied him, he hired Holmes to follow her and find out where she went each day. (This diverges from the canon: Doyle’s Holmes never got involved in marital disputes.)
The filmmakers delve into other mysteries, too. Why does Mrs. Munro so badly want to take another job and remove Roger from Holmes’ influence? (It’s nothing nasty.) Why does a Japanese man (Hiroyuki Sanada) go to such lengths to obtain rare prickly ash, which he promises will help Holmes avert senility? Hatcher and Condon tie these threads together in an hour-and-three-quarters, neither wasting nor overextending a scene.
The creative team delivers impeccable support. Carter Burwell leaves behind the wry scores he writes for the Coens to produce music of gentle elegance. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, who’s usually shackled to action films (“Battleship,” “Lone Survivor”), creates a soft, elegiac mood. Only production designer Martin Childs, a specialist in British period pieces (“Mrs. Potter,” “Mrs. Brown”) stays in his groove.
McKellen’s Holmes has the sagacity, bluntness and dignity we expect from the part, plus a kind of vulnerability we don’t always see in Holmes. Since his failure in 1912, he has lived through two world wars and had 35 years to sink into his bee-lined glade, and he scarcely knows how to relate to people. He bonds only with the intelligent Roger, whom he treats as an equal. (Parker has just the right quality of peppery friendliness.)
We see how Holmes has become a stereotype: Acquaintances weaned on Watson’s stories, which Holmes describes as false, expect him to smoke a pipe and wear a deerstalker hat, and the detective rolls his eyes at a screen version of himself. (Nicholas Rowe, star of Barry Levinson’s “Young Sherlock Holmes” in 1985, plays that version.)
Yet “Mr. Holmes” does all it can to subvert stereotypes. Audiences who want Holmes to do more than pause thoughtfully and point with his cane may fidget. But those of us who’ve long awaited a performance true to the original character will find it here.
The 93-year-old detective, now living on the coast of England among his bees, tries to write up an account of the case that made him quit detecting.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
STARS: Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada.
DIRECTOR: Bill Condon.
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes.
RATING: PG (thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking).