- SENIOR SHERLOCK: The detective (Ian McKellan, left, with Hiroyuki Sanada as Mr. Umezaki) suffers an "incomprehensible emptiness."
Sherlock Holmes movies are as old as the genre of detective cinema itself. This is literally true, according to the historians who study this sort of thing: The first Sherlock Holmes film was the first detective film, a silent one-reel sketch produced by the Biograph Co. and released in 1900. It was designed to be seen on a Mutoscope (a single-viewer arcade attraction), and was called "Sherlock Holmes Baffled." Not quite a story, it's really just a single scene in which Holmes is robbed by a thief who then magically vanishes. It's inexplicable. And unlike the original stories, it winds up with Holmes more or less admitting defeat. He appears, in the end, "baffled."
If it seems like we're currently inundated with new takes on Sherlock Holmes, it's a trick of perspective, because it's always been that way. But the last few years have certainly felt like a resurgence, if only in audience interest. To name only the highest-profile recent cases, there is the BBC miniseries "Sherlock," which helped launch Benedict Cumberbatch's career stateside; the CBS series "Elementary," starring Jonny Lee Miller (Crash Override from "Hackers"); and the last couple of "Sherlock Holmes" action films, which were marred by Guy Ritchie's spasmodic direction and Robert Downey Jr.'s indeterminate accent. If these versions have anything in common, it's their inclination toward hyperkinetic pacing and supposedly subversive character updates — heightening Holmes' sympathetic unlikeability, his Asperger's chic, his martial arts abilities.
"Mr. Holmes," which stars Sir Ian McKellen and is directed by Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls," "Twilight: Breaking Dawn"), marks a divergent approach in that it rejects these sorts of modernizing impulses altogether. (The Holmes movie it most closely resembles in this respect might be Billy Wilder's 1970 entry "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," which was similarly subdued and oddly structured.) At once more faithful and more ponderous than the popular Downey and Cumberbatch interpretations, its most important contribution to the canon might be its total lack of interest in encouraging real mystery. Rather than one great puzzle that needs to be solved, it's a series of minor puzzles that lack urgency. It's instead about senility, about memory and about what the elderly Holmes identifies as the "incomprehensible emptiness" in himself.
The film picks up with Holmes well into retirement, 93 years old and living with a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her precocious young son (Milo Parker) out in the rural English countryside. Flashbacks offer other storylines: Holmes' final case, which he struggles to remember by writing it out as a narrative, hoping it might serve as a corrective to Dr. Watson's embellished portrayals ("I've never had much use for imagination," he says at one point); and an ambiguous recent trip to Japan to track down a prickly ash plant, the jelly from which he thinks could treat his memory loss and the other symptoms of old age. There are also self-reflexive gestures meant to distance it from other Holmes adaptations, to distinguish its project as being more serious — he goes to see a Sherlock Holmes film and finds it ridiculous, reads the books and deems them "penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style."
The critic Edmund Wilson, in his classic 1945 takedown of the genre (titled "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?") famously dismissed detective fiction as being "a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles." He meant that too often these are the barest of stories, thematically empty and not really about anything at all except for the logic of detection itself. "Mr. Holmes" attempts to avoid this trap by using the logic of detection as a metaphor for memory. Holmes isn't solving a case so much as he's remembering one he solved a long time ago.
Whether or not this works for you as a Sherlock Holmes story will depend on a lot of things: your sentimental attachment to the character, your interest in the emotional drama of aging, your tolerance for early Oscar-season prestige films. There is a sense in which the movie wants to have it both ways — to look down on Sherlock Holmes stories intellectually, while still attracting their audience by co-opting the legend. If you're looking for a question that can be answered, stick with Benedict Cumberbatch. This film is for anyone who'd rather stay baffled.