Mr. HolmesA case could be made for Sherlock Homes as the first modern superhero. It would be as reasonable an explanation as any for the enduring nature of this character. His deductive reasoning is routinely presented as otherworldly. He is generally represented as wearing a costume with his deerstalker hat and Inverness cape. He is as ascetic as Superman and as brooding as Batman. His moral flaws rival those of Iron Man. He has an archenemy in Moriarty and a sense of immortality in that his death could never be confirmed.

Sherlock Holmes sprang from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, but stardom came on the screen – first in theaters, then on television, and now it goes back and forth. From Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey, Jr. to Benedict Cumberbatch, from the traditional figure to the action hero to the post-modern wiseass, Holmes lives through each generation in a slightly different form. There is a thesis waiting to be written that each society gets the Holmes it deserves.

We had an origin story 30 years ago with Young Sherlock Holmes, and now, finally, we have a last chapter that sees the master detective locked in the most desperate battle of his life, not with Moriarty at the top of the waterfall, but with the leading edges of dementia and an increasing sense of humility. Although a minor work overall, Mr. Holmes is a welcome and worthy addition to the canon. Director Bill Condon shows due deference to all that has come before, evoking a warm sense of familiarity with references to the well known elements of the myth while providing sly homage to previous cinematic versions.

A singular delight in this regard is seeing Ian McKellen as the “real” Holmes in a movie theater watching what is clearly meant to be the Basil Rathbone Holmes, only the actor is none other than Nicholas Rowe, who played the title role in the aforementioned Young Sherlock Holmes. Therein is the chief appeal of Mr. Holmes. It is fan fiction, lovingly done.

The story is slight. Holmes has retired to the coast. His housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, his biographer and BFF, John Watson, and last and finally, his brother, Mycroft, have passed. Holmes’s only clients now are ghosts with one in particular, a lovely wisp of a woman, pounding at the front door and demanding his attention. Sherlock is slipping; age has proven to be his kryptonite. He cannot remember the details of his final case, the one that forced him to retire. He deduces that he failed, for why else would he have stopped working, but the specifics elude him. He must re-solve it to resolve it.

He has a new housekeeper for his seaside cottage in Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and develops a new Watson in Munro’s young son, Roger (Milo Parker). Waiting for him 30 years in the past is his original client, Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), who fears his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan) has fallen prey to a scamming medium and glass harmonica instructor known as Madam Schirmer (Frances de la Tour). In addition to the back and forth from the 90-year old Holmes after WWII to the 60-year old Holmes after The Great War, we have a subplot – or better said, side plot – that has Holmes visiting Hiroshima seeking a cure for senility, but finding instead another painful unsolved mystery from the past.

McKellen shows that he would have been one of the most formidable Holmes’ on record if he had taken on the mantle at an earlier age. He has the haughtiness and a sense of burning intelligence that runs roughshod over human feeling. He is in fine form here, but it is equally distressing to see the fictional character and the great actor hobbled by age. McKellen and director Condon collaborated in 1998 on the brilliant film Gods and Monsters. Mr. Holmes is not at that level. The movie more closely resembles The Shootist, John Wayne’s final paean to the phenomenon that was his screen persona. Mr. Holmes is a bittersweet objet d’art that serves as a sharp reminder that what we do in our younger days does not have to define who we are in our later years.

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