Mr. Holmes is the adaptation of the novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, by Mitch Cullin, a different take on the oft-portrayed Sherlock Holmes. In a way it’s as different a take as Guy Ritchie’s overplotted action/adventure movies that starred Robert Downey Jr, with the major difference being that Bill Condon’s movie is much more enjoyable. The trouble is, if you go in looking for a “typical” Sherlock Holmes movie, you might feel hard done by.
A little background of my own interest in the character. Back when I were a lad in Scotland, the UK only had three television channels. BBC 1 and BBC2, and (in Scotland) STV. Budgets were tight on all three channels too, and many times old black and white movies would play frequently. It’s through this exposure I became a lifelong fan of Laurel & Hardy, the Universal monster movies, and Sherlock Holmes – the Basil Rathbone version. I loved Rathbone’s Holmes; rude, arrogant, but supremely in charge of all situations. I confess, I’ve never read any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, so my young impression of Rathbone’s famous detective was that he was a posh Columbo. Watching those Holmes movies at night was one of the immense joys of my childhood – but none of them was my favourite Holmes movie. That honour goes to Murder By Decree, where Christopher Plummer’s Holmes uncovered a murderous conspiracy that went to the heart of the British monarchy, and one not even he could defeat. More recently I’ve found Benedict Cumberbatch’s version entertaining, but I still prefer the others.
In Mr.Holmes, beloved actor Ian McKellen stars in this bittersweet tale of Holmes nearing the end of his life. Weaving in and out of three different timelines, we see the development of character of the once-great detective as he confronts the silent regrets of his past, and how they came to define him in the years following his estrangement from Dr. Watson. The earliest of the three stories follows Holmes on his last work for hire – a husband has hired him to uncover the mysterious movements of his wife, leading to one of his greatest regrets; more recently Holmes travels to post-war Hiroshima to meet with a Japanese man whose father claims to have known Holmes, and who can lead Holmes to the Prickly Ash, a plant with the supposed medicinal ability to prevent Holmes’ memory from failing further; in the present, Holmes retires to his remote cottage where he is cared for by his long time, exasperated housekeeper and her young son, played by Laura Linney and Milo Parker respectively.
The movie is well directed, as is typical of Bill Condon, and well acted, as expected from the cast, and to be sure, the gravity of the story – that the great Sherlock Holmes is now an old man coming to terms with his approaching mortality – is a rich one, but it isn’t what anyone would call a “Sherlock Holmes movie”. It’s all perfectly in context, though. Holmes still exhibits the astute powers of perception that brought him fame in his younger days, but the examples are sprinkled into the script casually, as if this detail – the one detail that makes Holmes such an entertaining character – is a tiresome requirement. These scenes are carried out in such a perfunctory manner that it’s easy to forget who the movie is about, and I found this aspect disappointing.
Likewise, the two storylines that take place before that which unfolds in the present felt lightweight. The early story of his last case is called up while Holmes attempts to write it for young Roger (Parker), but it’s not a case truly worthy of what we all expect from Sherlock Holmes. The thing to glean from this story is that Holmes is a lonely man in this period, and the resolution of it haunts him late in his life. The Hiroshima story is nothing more than a means to an end, an example of the bluntness of his character that has driven so many people away over the years. It’s in the third story, where these specters of the past loom before him and force him to turn his own powers of perception upon himself. This was the story that I enjoyed most of the three. The other two are more like episodes that help explain his character arc, but this present tense story is full of warmth and pathos, and emotion, and it’s really quite something to watch. Laura Linney is almost unrecognizable as the frumpy housekeeper, but she’s simmering with anger throughout, humbled by the arrogance and intelligence of not only Holmes, but also that of her young son Roger, who both idolizes Holmes, and is possessed of a forceful intelligence of his own. Milo Parker – watching him, I felt that I’d seen this kid in just about every British movie of the last few years, though that isn’t the case. He’s simply the product of a pretty great British movie industry that’s seen so many young actors hit the world stage running, and it’s clear from his performance in Mr.Holmes that he has a potentially massive future ahead of him.
But it’s a Sherlock Holmes movie, and it’s an Ian McKellen movie first and foremost. These are the reasons people will want to watch this, and I found Sir Ian’s performance to be fine indeed. I’ve been a fan of his ever since the debut of Britain’s 4th television channel (named Channel 4!), where one of the first broadcasts was the original TV movie Walter, the story of a mentally handicapped man suddenly having to deal with life in the wake of his mother’s death. Over the years, McKellen has given some terrific performances, many tinged with a strong undercurrent of compassion and warmth. His Sherlock Holmes comes at the right time in his career too, where he can bring a lifetime of experience, and the maturity of understanding, of reconciling onesself in the latter part of life. The performance is mellow, but the emotions feel all too real.
Maybe Mr. Holmes isn’t meant to be a message movie, but if so, it’s a message worth listening to, and, perhaps, acting on. How easy it us for us today to live in isolation, where the main means of expression is through keyboards. How easy it is for social media to draw from us the anger and poison that push us further apart. Mr. Holmes tells us not to wait until the end of our time on Earth to embrace those we love, and forgive the mostly petty differences that come between us and drive wedges that become too wide to close. It’s a life lesson that we’re dangerously close to forgetting, but so desperately need to keep in focus.
Ultimately, as much as I loved the main story, the other two are a little too thin in comparison, and the end result is an uneven movie. It never comes close to being mediocre, but it does fall short of being great. I should mention a fun piece of trivia too – in one scene, Holmes watches a “Sherlock Holmes” movie and scoffs at the conceit. Holmes in that movie is played by none other than Nicholas Rowe, who played a youthful version of the character in 1985’s Barry Levinson-directed Young Sherlock Holmes.
© Andrew Hope, 2017