Among other things, “Mr. Holmes ” is a movie about the difference between fiction and reality, the benefits of cross-generational friendships, the hazards of beekeeping, how the dead are really not that far away from us, and how logic sometimes falls short when it comes to solving a mystery. It takes three plot strands and weaves them expertly into a story that includes potential murder, suicide, and an adverse reaction to wasp stings, but manages to end on upbeat note, even though much of the subject matter is grim.
Sporting an impressive array of age spots plus a stoop and matching hobble, Ian McKellen plays Mr. Holmes, who has retired and is living a quiet life in the country with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young, precocious son (Milo Parker), who takes a fancy to the strange boarder and spies upon him. This Holmes is still the smartest man in the room, but he’s also struggling with the ravages of old age, including senility, and is under the care of a doctor who advises him to make a mark in a blank book every time he can’t remember something. Quips Ian, “What if I forget to make a mark?” but the doctor doesn’t find this amusing. Ian currently keeps himself busy by beekeeping and writing down his version of a case that he felt he failed to solve well. His housekeeper isn’t too thrilled about having to shoulder the burden of live-in nursing, and is considering moving to a new job in a hotel, which doesn’t please her child, who wants more from life than merely working as a tradesman.
The second storyline is the backstory of the case Ian is writing about, even though (I think) Watson has already published his version of those events. A young, distraught man visits Ian one day and explains that his wife, ever since the death of two of her infants, has become obsessed with music and is taking lessons from a teacher who believes that it can help her contact the dead. The husband engages Ian to find out what the heck is going on, and Ian soon stumbles into something more sinister that the wife may or may not be planning.
The third piece of the puzzle is a Japanese man who meets Ian in his country and extols the advantages of the prickly ash plant, which is a native, grows in the remains of Hiroshima, and may help with senility. It turns out the man has an ulterior motive for helping Ian: his father emigrated to England, leaving his son and wife behind. The father was a Holmes fan and gave his son a copy of one of his novels when he was a child. Ian claims not to remember the father, but is this a case of age-related amnesia or is there another reason?
Unlike the majority of movies I have seen this summer, “Mr. Holmes” contains not one joke about poop, projectile vomit or pubic hair. It is relentlessly tasteful and contains no humor but the martini-dry British kind, which was a welcome change.