In the movies, it’s almost always the rich, famous, and — in the case of “Mr. Holmes” — fictitious who come down with dementia. Maybe Hollywood thinks a movie about the mundane challenges faced by regular people dealing with the disease isn’t very interesting.
Be that as it may, the premise of this film, based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” is rich in possibilities. Just having Sherlock Holmes portrayed as a real person, not as the fictitious hero of the iconic series of mysteries written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, questions the borderline between the real and the imaginary. And a real Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), at 93, trying to crack an old case despite his waning faculties? Such a scenario should touch on mysteries of memory, reason, and desire that would challenge even the great master of deduction.
Unfortunately, director Bill Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher are clueless, and come up with an incoherent, implausible, contrived mishmash. Despite it, McKellen — with his sly line readings, natty top hat, and a gnarled face that looks like the knob of a shillelagh — almost pulls the pieces together.
To be fair, Cullin did not do the filmmakers any favors by presenting them with a multi-level narrative that takes place in several different times and places at once. There is only so much you can do with a flashback within a flashback within a flashback.
Nonetheless, they begin confidently enough in the spring of 1947, as Holmes returns to his seaside English cottage after a trip to Japan, bearing with him a potted plant. But the real story takes place years before, when a jaded Holmes takes up the case of Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), who has doubts about his wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan). What’s going on with her and the blowsy Madame Schirmer (Frances de la Tour), who is teaching her to play the glass armonica?
Enchanted by a photo of Ann, Holmes agrees to look into this spurious mystery.
Any story that includes a glass armonica and a rare Japanese plant also needs an apiary and a cute little boy, so in his spare time Holmes tends bees and bonds with his housekeeper’s precocious son. At least this offers one case Holmes can solve. When a character is nearly stung to death, he deduces that it wasn’t the bees, it was the wasps. “Quite a different thing altogether,” he concludes.
Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that there is no lesson to be learned and that the resolutions of detective fiction are just a comforting fantasy because life is just a series of red herrings. I suspected as much. Or maybe the lesson is that some novels don’t render themselves well to the screen, but that won’t stop them from being made.
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Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.