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Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

Bill Condon directs Sir Ian McKellen as the great aging sleuth in Mr. Holmes
© 2015 Roadside Attractions

The Game Is Adrift

Those reasonably familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes tales will know that the master sleuth dreamed of retiring to Sussex once his cases were all solved, specifically to raise bees in solitude. Bill Condon’s film Mr. Holmes, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, imagines just such a scenario, in which Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen) has outlived nearly all his old comrades and, just after the close of the Second World War, dodders about his coastal cottage nearly a century old.

Many authors after Doyle have added their ideas to the Sherlock Holmes canon, with varying degrees of success and wildly divergent levels of regard for the source material. Some stories, including a few by Doyle himself, toy with the classic Holmes format by flashing significantly forward or backward in the life of the great sleuth. More than one fiendish problem has imposed itself on his placid country retirement, but in almost all such cases Holmes retains his razor-keen intellect no matter how physically diminished by age. Hatcher’s screenplay, by way of Cullin’s novel, presents another more poignant possibility. What if the mind of the world’s greatest detective (sorry, Batman) began to fail him with one crucial mystery left to solve?

This premise, though rendered with due respect for the character’s history, seems to cast a glum shadow over the happy retirement which Doyle must have meant as a parting gift for his greatest character. The two other inhabitants of the cottage are his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes, notoriously brusque with fellow humans throughout his life, is no easy charge. Though softened by old age into a genuine fondness for the precocious boy, he functions in a near-constant state of abstraction that wears on the mother. Obliged to take up the duties of a home nurse, at “cook’s wages” as she puts it, she frowns upon her son’s worship of the august Mr. Holmes. A modest woman tried by grief and sacrifice, she feels her relationship with Roger slipping as Holmes fosters the boy’s ravenous curiosity. She adores her son and admires his cleverness, but fears he may grow to look down on his own humble roots. Having lost much in life herself, she may also hope to spare him the ravages of grief when his decrepit hero inevitably dies. She tries to impose distance between the two when she can, without much success. Linney does typically excellent work in this role, wielding a convincing Southern English accent that never intrudes on a strong and moving performance.

McKellen, a vibrant and energetic actor now in his middle seventies, plays the precarious physical state of a hard-worn chap in his early nineties with conviction. His rich intonation is known to most moviegoers by now, but he acts just as eloquently with mournful eyes, trembling hands, and a stubbornly jaunty flourish of his walking cane. It is surprising that this should be his first turn as Sherlock Holmes.

Roger, meanwhile, trails Holmes wherever he goes, begging him to continue a half-written manuscript correcting the late Dr. Watson’s account of the very last Baker Street case. At several points the film gets playful with the slippery nature of Holmes the person. Sherlock Holmes, as we know him, is a fictional character so familiar that he often seems like a real figure from history, while in the world of Mr. Holmes he is a real person conflated to legendary status on page, stage and screen thanks to all manner of literary license. Throughout his career Holmes has tolerated discrepancies between life and legend, such as the briar pipe and deerstalker hat he claims he never used, but evidently Watson’s account of his final case has the facts so wrong that Holmes feels compelled to set them right.

Young Milo Parker, who plays Roger, is a rare find. He looks every bit the simple country lad, but his presence and delivery are laudable. There are many fine young actors (which is, after all, how we get fine old actors), but few as young as Parker have the chops to act alongside dramatic veterans like Linney and McKellen. He steals as much of the camera’s attention as they do, and this early performance ought to start his career on a good path.

The details of the lost case itself are better shown than explained. They involve a curious course of music lessons, a grief-stricken lady (Hattie Morahan) wandering London to the dismay of her husband (Patrick Kennedy), a somber visit to postwar Japan, a mysterious foreign host (Hiroyuki Sanada), and the peculiar life cycle of bees. All the ingredients are ready-measured for a classic Holmes adventure, but the race against his ailing faculties is a new enemy for the old sleuth to conquer. Supporting turns from such seasoned players as John Sessions and Frances de la Tour will delight cameo spotters.

The film is beautiful. Carter Burwell’s score drifts through shades of wonder and sorrow. Long shots of breezy coastline and the saturated colors of Holmes’s hyper-idyllic seaside garden are constant reminders that this, too, is yet another story for the collector’s bookshelf. Even London, as recalled by Holmes in his nightly writings, resembles the set of a well-staged murder play or an illustration from Doyle’s own books.

Besides the aesthetic appeal, Condon’s film has another sort of beauty as well. Holmes’s eccentric manners and comic arrogance have always offset his intellect. Doyle found many deft ways to hint that his combination of talents formed a blind spot regarding certain points of basic humanity. Despite observational prowess and a preternatural grasp of forensic links most people never see, Holmes could, on occasion, find his frosty reason bested by chaotic whims of the human heart. Though he seldom tipped the cards of his own capacity for affection, it did happen more than once as Doyle brought the chronicles to a close. Mr. Holmes takes those glimpses of tenderness as a starting point to show a brilliant man at the end of his life, quite overcome by a depth of feeling he never knew himself to possess. Once, in a sly reversal of Doyle, McKellen’s Holmes misses a vital clue because, possibly for the first time in his life, personal investment trumps his unquenchable thirst for cold hard evidence.

There are many forms of latter-day Sherlock Holmes tale. Reinventions, critical revisions, satires and outright spoofs of the great consulting detective abound. Possibly next to Count Dracula, no literary figure of the period has been more widely appropriated. Mr. Holmes story takes all this into account, yet hearkens to tradition with great respect. Its unfamiliar pathways ultimately complement the legacy more than they challenge it. Presuming that the original conception of Holmes in retirement was meant as a reward from his author, this further elegy suggests a Holmes who, despite the cost in grief and physical pain, may go to his grave having found the final, elusive piece of the human puzzle. The journey promises to be tragic and even terrifying when the heart takes up slack for the brain, but the hope of balance and peace may well justify the risk. Perhaps the “real” Holmes would have been content to die without such an epiphany, but the emotional payoff is fine indeed for his generations of fans.