When it comes to the premise of Sherlock Holmes' final days, most of us have a very specific image in mind. It usually involves Sherlock Holmes locked in some epic battle with eternal nemesis James Moriarty, before the two of them destroy each other from the top of a massive waterfall. This despite the fact that Moriarty played absolutely no role in any Sherlock Holmes story before or after, the fight took place entirely off the printed page, and we all know that Holmes went on to have many other adventures after surviving his trip to Reichenbach Falls. In truth, the ultimate fate of Sherlock Holmes was never recorded, at least not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But I think we all somehow knew that he'd go out with a bang.
From the character's explosive introduction to the big-budget spectacle of the Robert Downey Jr. films to the compelling suspense thrillers of the Benedict Cumberbatch tenure, Sherlock Holmes has always been treated as a figure larger than life. He could solve the most convoluted problems, he could subdue the most hardened criminals, he could escape the most dangerous predicaments, and he had even succeeded in cheating death. If Holmes wasn't immortal, then it would surely take something unimaginably huge to bring him down.
So here we have Mr. Holmes, about an aging Sherlock Holmes played by none other than Sir Ian McKellan. Sounds awesome, right? Even if the character is getting up there in years, we've all seen McKellan continue to kick ass well into his seventies and there's no reason to think that Holmes would be less formidable at that age.
To think this way would be a grave mistake. Or maybe it would be playing into the movie's hands. I'll try to explain.
The story primarily takes place in a small country farmhouse where Sherlock Holmes has retired to be a beekeeper. The whole world knows of the great detective, but Holmes has been quite successful at maintaining his privacy. After the artistic license constantly taken by Dr. Watson (which Holmes himself frequently complained about in the source material), compounded on top of further artistic license taken by the illustrator (such as Sidney Paget's invention of the deerstalker cap, never once mentioned in Conan Doyle's writing), further compounded by the myriad film adaptations (almost solely responsible for the "elementary" catchphrase), no one could ever connect the actual man to the myths he inspired.
Anyway, Holmes is in his nineties by this point, and he's interested in finding homeopathic remedies to help with his encroaching senility. This explains his beekeeping occupation, as royal jelly is thought to have certain medicinal properties. When that stops working, Holmes goes on a trip to Japan in search of prickly ash to slow down the loss of his faculties. And for whatever incredibly stupid reason, Holmes goes and uses prickly ash taken directly from the dust bowl that used to be Hiroshima. Because of course eating something that grew in so much radiation is perfectly safe.
I only mention all of this because the search for homeopathic remedies isn't merely an end in itself. There is a reason why Holmes is trying to get his memories back, and this brings us to the main thrust of the plot.
After his brother and Dr. Watson have both passed on, Holmes is moved to revisit his old cases. He's particularly interested in his last case (invented for the movie, as far as I can tell), both reading Dr. Watson's account of it and watching a film adaptation of the story in question. And he hates it. Not only is everything presented in cartoonishly melodramatic fashion, but nothing in the story adds up in any logical way. So Holmes decides to write down his account of that case and set everything straight before he dies.
The only problem is, he can't remember what really happened. So Holmes writes down the story in fits and spurts throughout the running time, as his memory is jogged by certain discoveries and epiphanies in addition to the simple act of writing it all down.
Thus the movie jumps between two different time periods: One in which Holmes is in his seventies and one in which Holmes is in his nineties. And McKellan's transition from one to the other is astonishing. When we see Sherlock on the case, McKellan brings that glint in his eye. We can see the intellect, the wit, the persistence, and the energy that made Sherlock Holmes such a powerful force of personality, all honed and refined by so many years of experience. McKellan makes it all look effortless, likely because the character and the actor are both living legends and they know it.
But then the flashback ends and we're back to watching a formerly brilliant mind slowly wasting away and trapped in a frail old body. McKellan shows that same strength of spirit, only now it's in a painful and constant conflict with his own mortal limitations, and it's a wonderful performance. Though to be fair, it certainly helps that the film doesn't need to establish the stakes. We already know how brilliant this man used to be and why it's such a tragedy that his mind and body are wasting away because he's goddamn Sherlock Holmes!
This brings me to our supporting characters. Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) lives on Holmes' farm as his housekeeper, alongside her son (Roger, played by Milo Parker). She's sick of being overworked and underpaid, employed by a senile old fool who's probably going to die in the immediate future, so she'd better start looking for other work while there's still time. Compare that to Roger, who loves to hear about Holmes' old stories and help care for his bees.
Basically put, Roger only sees the great man that Holmes used to be while Mrs. Munro only sees the feeble invalid that Holmes currently is. It makes for a riveting conflict between the two. I'd personally argue that maybe neither one is entirely in the right or in the wrong, considering how Holmes' strengths and infirmities play out. Yet the movie seems to lean on Roger's side, since his firm belief in Holmes is a crucial driving force behind the latter's recovering memory and the plot seems to delight in penalizing Mrs. Munro for every choice she makes.
Ultimately, the conflict between Roger and his mother is part of the greater conflict between reality and fiction. Themes of mortality and memory are of course part of the film, but this is the thematic content that I personally found most interesting.
Holmes constantly struggles with his literary alter ego, interested only in the truth of who he really is. But he never stops to think about whether he could serve as a far greater inspiration and hero as a fictional character. The point has a strangely meta ring to it: There has never been any such person as Sherlock Holmes, and Doyle himself was quite vocal in how much he preferred to write works of nonfiction. Yet his works of fiction will outlive us all and enrich far more lives than any of his historical texts ever could.
Moreover, Holmes has always been a man of logic and he's never been very good at connecting with people on any emotional level (especially in the character's more modern incarnations). But cold hard logic has its limits. Facts can tell someone why a person was murdered, for example, but facts may not provide much of any solace for the bereaved. I don't dare go further into details for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that there is a very strong emotional element in Holmes' line of work, and it's heavily implied that Watson dealt with that to make up for Holmes' social shortcomings. And Holmes never had to reckon with that until it was too late.
At this point, you may have noticed that I haven't talked much about the mystery or the action. That's in large part because there isn't any. There may be a central mystery at the core of the plot, but the point is kinda moot because the mystery itself was solved years ago and any consequences of it have long since played out already. There are clues and there are reveals, and the puzzles are quite intriguing in how they're presented, but the mysteries all feel tiny in scope. There are no massive conspiracies or heists or plots to take over the world, they're just little personal things. Though to be fair, quite a few of Holmes' original mysteries were no greater in scope ("A Case of Identity" comes immediately to mind).
As for the action, it's nonexistent. When the characters are placed in danger, it's usually because Holmes took a fall or something like that. There are no fistfights, gunfights, swordfights, or fights of any kind. There are no high-speed chases on foot or in any vehicle. Holmes does trail a suspect through a large stretch of running time, but that's it.
Then again, it's entirely possible that Holmes (by which I obviously mean this interpretation of Holmes) was never a man of danger. It's possible that all those moments of action and adventure were only among those embellishments that Holmes hated so much. The man and the myth have become so deeply entangled that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Which I guess is the entire point.
Mr. Holmes is very far removed from action-packed or thrilling, like you'd expect from anything else involving Sherlock Holmes. And at the same time, it's nothing so profound or creative that I'd call it some brilliant work of high art. Yet the film's understated nature is what makes it interesting. Through this intimate and deeply personal approach, the filmmakers are able to examine this well-worn character through a completely new lens.
It's sweet, it's smart, and it's superbly acted (most notably, Sir Ian McKellen is in peak form). That's not enough for me to recommend that you rush out and see it as quickly as possible, but it is enough that I'd say it's worth a watch.