Imagine what it would be like for a man whose whole life had depended on the acuity of his mental faculties, his sharp reason, and his ability to recall minute details from his past to begin to experience the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. In the film, Mr. Holmes, we are presented with this scenario. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes is nearing the end of his life.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind written in 2005, this film is set just after the end of World War II. Holmes has returned from a trip to post-war Japan in search of a remedy for his failing memory. He has become obsessed with remembering the details of his last case, and is desperately trying to recall its specifics. His interactions with Roger, the young son of his housekeeper, are the keys that begin to unlock his memory, which returns in spurts throughout the film.
Holmes is wonderfully played by award-winning actor Ian McKellen, recently known for playing Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. His is a different Holmes than the manic version recently interpreted by Benedict Cumberbatch, or the Jeremy Brett version of thirty years ago. McKellen gives us a picture of the decay of the massive intellect and sharp mind of Conan Doyle’s character. McKellen, 76 years old himself, brings this character to life in a way that is honest and completely believable. The nuances of expression give us a sense of the frustration of a man who knows that he once knew something, but is unable to call it to mind on command.
Laura Linney, as the housekeeper Mrs. Munro, brings a realism to a character who has lost a husband to the recent war and is wrestling with her future and that of her young son. While she recognizes the limitations of her lack of education, there is an underlying sense that she is trying to work out how to provide the best opportunities for Roger’s future. She sees Holmes’ decline and is making plans for the next stage in her life.
Roger is a prodigy. The interactions between this brilliant child, wonderfully played by Milo Parker, and Holmes are the best part of the film. The contrast between the two characters at opposite ends of their lives is dramatic, and yet their similarities create a bond between them that strengthens over the course of the story. Roger is the light that helps Holmes break through the fog of his failing memory.
As a long-time fan of the Sherlock Holmes character, I was curious about this film. While there is a detective story at the core of the plot, this is a film about a man wrestling with the value and meaning of his life’s work, with seeing the end of his life just over the horizon, and with coming to terms with the failing faculties on which he has depended. It is a beautiful film, masterfully acted, and well-written.
Although McKellen has been nominated, he has never won an Oscar. This may be the role that finally brings him that recognition. Linney’s performance is also worthy of consideration. Milo Parker’s performance as Roger rivals that of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense or Mary Badham in To Kill A Mockingbird in maturity and impact. It would not be a surprise to see him among the nominees for Best Supporting Actor.
While it may not be out much longer, it is worth seeing on the big screen if you can.