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A new Sherlock Holmes fights to hold on to everything

Mr. Holmes doesn’t smoke a meerschaum pipe. He prefers cigars. He never wore a deerstalker cap either. That, he says, was a fantasy of the illustrator of the books put out by his friend John Watson. Holmes usually opts for a black silk top hat when he goes out walking with a cane.

Nor, it seems, did he ever live at 221B Baker St. That was a deliberate falsehood planted by Watson in his Holmes fictions to lead fans away from their real digs that lay across the street. With all those Baker Street Irregulars infesting the neighborhood and fans beating a path to the wrong address, Holmes could smugly observe his popularity without being in the slightest perturbed by it.

If there is or was a violin on the premises for him to play, we never see or hear of it in “Mr. Holmes.”

Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes” is the newest in the wonderful wave of revisionist Sherlock Holmes fantasies we’ve been seeing in the past decade. It’s based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” which was originally going to be the title of the film until “Mr. Holmes” made matters shorter and punchier, if less witty.

This is Sherlock Holmes as an old man in 1949. He lives in a country house in Sussex with his housekeeper and her young son. He has been out of the detection business for 30 years.

His old friend and chronicler John Watson is long dead, though his accounts of Holmes’ cases remain popular.

For the first time in Holmes’ life, he is trying to write of his own exploits – in particular the final case, which caused him to end his career and leave Baker Street in London.

Unfortunately, that has become inordinately difficult, because Mr. Holmes is failing rapidly, both physically and mentally. His mind is still razor-keen in some matters, but memory is not one of them – no small problem for a fledgling writer of formerly superhuman memory and ratiocination. He can’t quite write fiction, though, either because, unlike Watson, he says, “I was never very good at stories.”

His life is fully directed by his housekeeper and her son, whom Holmes is trying to instruct in the fine art of keeping and understanding an apiary full of well-kept bees.

Mr. Holmes’ only accepted travel invitation of late was to go to Japan, mostly so he could bring back a powder to help restore the faculties of a man who now sometimes even forgets the word for senility.

Don’t expect Sherlockian cerebral virtuosity from “Mr. Holmes.” This is not that kind of tale. This is an elegiac and enormously touching story of a very old and struggling man of once-fabled capacities coming to grips, in his final years, with all the things he’s never really been.

He can still do his instant virtuosic feats of observation and deduction just from looking briefly at people’s exteriors. His housekeeper’s son, though, treats it as an old man’s parlor trick.

The sensitive little boy – who has come to care for Holmes’ bees almost as much as Holmes – knows that the old man is suffering from no longer being in touch with his deepest and most astounding gifts.

But there is a tale to be told about why he gave it all up and lost track of Watson after he left to get married. And that is the tale we’re watching here, as it unfolds to the old man trying to remember.

Let me confess that, frankly, I’m loving the new revisionist freedoms that writers, filmmakers and TV people are taking with Sherlock Holmes. I heartily dislike the Downey/Law movies as Holmes and Watson, true, but I admire their independent spirit. CBS’ “Elementary,” though, continually blows me away with its ingenuity and its creative audacity – about a 21st-century recovered drug addict Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) whose Watson is named Joan (Lucy Liu) and is his former sober companion. Putting Holmes into the recovery community was one of the cleverest 21st-century ideas in network prime time.

Turning one of the great geniuses of fiction into a struggling old man grasping at some of the final threads of competence was a risk that would never have worked on film as well as it does here unless the actors were the best.

And that they are here, under the direction of Condon. His Holmes is Sir Ian McKellen, 76, playing an aged and failing man. Laura Linney plays a torn housekeeper who must now begin to look out primarily for the future of her ultra-smart, sensitive and lonely little boy (played affectingly by Milo Parker).

McKellen has enough conviction that in a film of flashbacks, he can carry off both Holmes’ self-regarding grandiosity and his later fear-stricken incapacity and anxiety over degenerating health and competence.

Linney plays the very soul of plainness without turning it into a secret virtuoso turn. She’s no fool. She knows the film rises and falls on the audience’s attentions to a masterful old actor and the appeal of a vulnerable and very young one.

I love that the world is now so used to the fictional “reality” of Sherlock Holmes as a modern mythic figure that it loves to invent new variations on this beloved figure who was never, after all, the slightest bit real in the first place.

Mr. Holmes belongs to us all, which is why we care so much about McKellen’s version of him in “Mr. Holmes.”

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

MR. HOLMES

3.5 stars

Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker

Director: Bill Condon

Running time: 104 minutes

Rating: PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking.

The Lowdown: An aged and failing Sherlock Holmes tries to remember his last case and why it ended his detecting career.

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