Ageing detective vs. memory in lyrical ‘Mr. Holmes’
In the canon of famous literary characters, few have been so gleefully adulterated over the years as Sherlock Holmes. The brilliant, eccentric “consulting detective,” first conceived of by Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s, has proved irresistible to countless other writers trying their hands at Holmesian-style tales, among many other multimedia adventurers. In the famous series of mystery films of the ’40s, Holmes was enlisted in the fight against Hitler. Two popular current TV series update Holmes to the present day.
So, the new movie, Mr. Holmes, joins a longstanding tradition of adapting the character to suit the needs of a new author or agenda, presenting an elderly Holmes in retirement as he attempts to solve one last case. Based on the Mitch Cullin novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty), it reunites star Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon, almost two decades after their successful collaboration on Gods And Monsters. It is, in many ways, a lovely, lyrical film about ageing, loss, and redemption, although it settles for an overall tone of wistfulness, instead of the deeper resonance it might have had.
The framing story begins in 1947, with McKellen’s craggy, truly ancient-seeming Holmes returning to his stone farm cottage and beehives on the Sussex Downs after a trip to postwar Japan. Retired from detective work for the past 25 years, he’s gone to Japan in search of a rare herbal compound he hopes will improve his declining mental faculties. After years of enduring Dr. Watson’s fictitious embellishments about him (like the deerstalker hat and the pipe; “I prefer a cigar,” he says), Holmes is determined to write a story of his own.
Holmes’ household is run by his Irish housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow whose young son Roger (Milo Parker) is an avid reader and fan of Watson’s stories. (He’s always begging Holmes to “do that thing you do,” deducing everything about a person by looking at them.) Holmes allows Roger to help him with the bees, and, with the boy egging him on, he begins to reveal that the story he’s writing is about his last and only unsolved case. But in addition to simply telling the story, we soon realize, Holmes is struggling against his diminishing powers to remember what happened in the case—and why it was the reason he quit the profession.
The narrative is riddled with flashbacks to the case, 30 years earlier, where a young man (Patrick Kennedy) hires Holmes to follow his pretty young wife (Hattie Morahan), who’s grieving for her two stillborn children. Holmes’ trip to Japan also threads in and out of the modern story. Another poignant thread is the uneducated Mrs. Munro’s fear of not measuring up in her son’s eyes as Roger becomes ever more attached to the brilliant old man.
There’s one small delicate moment of connection between two characters, around which, when it’s finally revealed, the entire rest of the story revolves. The problem is, it’s so subtle, the audience doesn’t quite feel it. Even given all the details of plot, counterplots, subplots, and red herrings we’ve ingested up till then, the moment seems to come completely out of nowhere. Much can be lost in translation from page to screen, as we all know, and perhaps a closer narration in the book (which I haven’t read) renders this encounter more of the emotional epiphany it needs to be.
The motives and cross-currents underlying that trip to Japan are also a bit unclear—although a visit to the ashen, bombed-out crater of Hiroshima, where Holmes witnesses the Japanese tradition of honoring one’s dead, provides an expressive coda for Condon’s film. And there’s a sly in-joke at the cinema with Holmes watching a black-and-white film about his exploits where the onscreen Holmes is played by actor Nicholas Rowe—who starred in Young Sherlock Holmes back in 1985.
This is a thoughtful, atmospheric addition to Holmesiana. Still, I hope the next time the movies want to do something really original with Sherlock Holmes, they discover the novels of Laurie King.
*** (out of four)
With Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, and Milo Parker. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher. From a novel by Mitch Cullin. Directed by Bill Condon. A Miramax/Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG. 104 minutes. PHOTO: Ian McKellen stars as Sherlock Holmes working on his last unsolved case in Bill Condon’s ‘Mr. Holmes.’