Has there ever been a more durable, more adaptable fictional character than Arthur Conan Doyle's celebrated Sherlock Holmes? The great detective has been played by dozens of actors in every medium, and modern authors have placed him in new adventures set in locales as far from London as India, Montana, even north of the Arctic Circle.
Doing something completely different with this character, then, is no easy task, but the beautifully done "Mr. Holmes" has made it happen. Maneuvering shrewdly within the boundaries of the traditional canon and aided by the impeccable performance of Ian McKellen, Bill Condon directs an elegant puzzler that presents the sage of Baker Street dealing with the one thing he's never had to contend with before: his own emotions.
For, as all Sherlockians know, Holmes is the great champion of rationality, someone who believes in the mind above all things.
"Mourning is commonplace," he says dismissively when someone thinks of shedding a tear in "Mr. Holmes." "Logic is rare."
But, as detailed in Jeffrey Hatcher's deft script taken from Mitch Cullin's novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind," several factors have made Holmes not quite himself. He's unmoored in uncharted territory in a way he is definitely not used to as he tries to solve a series of interlocking mysteries before it's too late.
The key conceit of "Mr. Holmes" is that the detective was a real person whose exploits were fictionalized into "penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style" by Dr. Watson. For instance, the real Holmes lived at Baker Street but at another number, never wore a deerstalker hat ("an embellishment of the illustrator") and preferred cigars to a pipe.
The year is 1947, and Holmes, to his shock, is 93 years old, faced with diminishing memory and coping unhappily with the various indignities of increasing age.
Flawlessly played by McKellen, who himself is but 76, this Holmes is proud but failing, someone who really needs that huge magnifying glass. The detective has never been exactly warm and cuddly, but age has robbed him of his marvelous energy, so now he's more of a cranky fussbudget with a face as old as the ruins of time.
For decades a beekeeper living with a succession of exasperated housekeepers in rural Sussex (Laura Linney is excellent as Mrs. Munro, the latest), Holmes is interested in his bees and in whatever remedies he can find to rejuvenate his memory. He's written a monograph on "The Value of Royal Jelly," and one of the film's plot strands has him going to Japan to seek out the prickly ash plant for that purpose.
It's not vanity that has Holmes worried about his memory. As someone who feels "one shouldn't leave life without a sense of completion," he is attempting to write his own, truthful version of what happened on one particular case.
And it's not any random investigation that Holmes is attempting to recall; it's his last case some 30 years earlier. Shown in extensive flashbacks, it involves a young married woman named Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) with a puzzling fixation on the glass harmonica.
The disposition of this case led Holmes to retire from detecting, and lately he has been desperate to remember why.
"I chose exile for my punishment," he says to himself. "What could it be for?"
Also interested in Holmes' memories, because he wants to read the resulting story, is 10-year-old Roger, the widowed Mrs. Munro's only child. Nicely played with an unforced sense of self by newcomer Milo Parker, young Roger is a Holmes fan who is always asking the detective to "do the thing," to detect information about people from their personal appearances.
Holmes has never been one for children, but he needs help with his bees, and gradually a kind of complicity grows between these two, one that disturbs the excluded Mrs. Munro for a variety of reasons.
Keeping all these elements in delicate balance is director Condon, who won a screenwriting Oscar for "Gods and Monsters," his 1998 collaboration with McKellen.
Condon's work here is restrained but sure-handed, allowing what seems at first to be a slight tale to build almost without our awareness into a story with surprising power. Even the celebrated detective finds he has more to learn about human feelings, which turn out to be the greatest mystery of all.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images, incidental smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes