Over the last decade, Bill Condon has been directing big, splashy movies, such as Dreamgirls, not to mention two entries in the Twilight series. Yet Mr. Holmes feels more like the real Bill Condon, the one who gave us Gods and Monsters and Kinsey. Like those predecessors, Mr. Holmes takes place in the middle of the 20th century and is smart, sedate and well acted.
Based on Mitch Cullin's novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mr. Holmes imagines the old age of Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It's 1947, the war is over, and Holmes is residing in the countryside. He has a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and, aside from his beekeeping hobby and his memories, she and her little boy (Milo Parker) are his world.
The first thing Mr. Holmes must do is persuade the audience that this, indeed, is Sherlock Holmes. It must seduce the audience into melding our past knowledge of the character with the new fiction the movie is spinning. Along this line, the movie's success is immediate, and then it deepens and becomes yet more rich, as the film reveals an understanding of Holmes in all of his complexity — his loneliness and his emotional timidity, as well as his intellectual bravado.
We see Holmes in two time periods. In 1947, he is struggling with a memory loss so severe that he must reach in vain for the names of people in his own household. Yet in the face of this, in between pursuing exotic remedies, he is trying to write — to set down the record of his last case, the one that made him give up sleuthing and retire to the country. This case, which took place some 30 years before, is also depicted, and in those scenes, McKellen looks a lot younger. Not a full 30 years younger, but young enough that we can stop worrying about him.
Mr. Holmes is not an exciting film. One can imagine that, after Twilight movies, a director must treasure the chance to be intelligent and slightly dull instead of flashy and colossally stupid. Mr. Holmes plays out at one steady pace, without any alteration in velocity, but it always gives us something, some interplay of characters worth noting, some insight into the great detective's personality. And all the while, it's building. It's heading somewhere.
Gradually, the case in Holmes' past becomes central to the story, and the woman involved in it takes on a greater importance. We see her, on and off, throughout the film, but she appears in only a single long scene, and if you want to see the influence that a great actress can exert with a minimum of screen time, watch Hattie Morahan here. Morahan is best known for her acclaimed work as Nora in the Young Vic production of A Doll's House, which traveled from London to New York a few years ago.
To her role in Mr. Holmes, Morahan brings such fullness of emotion, such attention, such innate dignity and such intuition that she is the one viewers will think of when the film is over. And if they think of Holmes, they will think of Holmes thinking of her. Acting on this level is like a form of magic or incantation. You can't really explain it. You can only point to it and say, "Look at that."