Mr. Holmes (2015)
“After a lifetime of detective work, there’s one mystery left to solve: his own.”
Mr. Holmes (2015)
Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada
Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes, deals with early dementia, as he tries to remember his final case and a woman, the memory of whom still haunts him. He also befriends a fan, the young son of his housekeeper, who wants him to work again.
It’s 1947, and Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) is an old man of 93 struggling with the indisputable evidence of his own failing mental faculties. His physician gives him a diary in which to record each incidence of forgetfulness, and soon the book is filled with small black dots, each signifying another tiny step on Mr. Holmes’ journey towards dementia. Watson, his faithful sidekick through numerous adventures, is long dead after just three years of marriage, but his ‘embellishments’ of Holmes behaviour and attire which fired the public’s imagination after the Doctor published accounts of their adventures in novel form, still haunt Holmes, even in a war-ravaged Japan, where, at the film’s beginning, he is searching for a cure for his waning capabilities.
But Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes isn’t merely a record of an iconic character’s decline. After all, who would really want to see that? While it’s certainly a film that explores the challenges one faces in the final years of life, it’s also about the importance of identifying the times when cool logic, no matter how well-intentioned, must yield to human compassion, and the emotional rewards to be derived from such moments. Holmes has been retired for thirty years. He tends bees by the coast, in a cottage he shares with his housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney – The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and her inquisitive young son, Roger (Milo Parker). The mystery posed by the movie revolves around what it was about Holmes’ final case that prompted him to retire. He doesn’t know – he can’t remember; but with Roger’s help he painstakingly begins to put the pieces together.
Holmes’s odyssey is a difficult one, both for him and the audience. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay buffets us back and forth between three time frames: the distant past of Holmes’s last case, the immediate past in which he voyaged to Japan, and his present endeavours to unlock the memories that still reside within his failing mind. It’s reasonable to expect these strands to intertwine more closely as the story approaches its conclusion, but not only do they refuse to do so, too often they intrude upon – rather than complement – one another. Not only does this hinder the pace of the film, but the Japan sequence in particular feels almost like an afterthought bolted on to drive home the film’s message.
McKellen is superb as Holmes – there’s something of Gielgud about his performance – and you have to wonder why he’s never been considered for the part in the past. Mr. Holmes is certainly a more appropriate conduit for his talents than the fanboy movies which seem to be his regular source of income these days. His screen relationship with young Milo Parker is a simple, yet warm and believable one, whereas his less congenial interactions with Mrs Munro, whom his deductive reasoning informs him is planning to take the boy and find another job, provide a measure of gentle conflict in what might otherwise have been a rather too comfortable scenario to hold the interest.
While Mr. Holmes’ narrative structure is a problem, Hatcher’s sympathetic screenplay is otherwise sound, providing a respectful – and unique – addition to the ever-growing Sherlock Holmes canon. By examining the inevitable effects of growing old on even the most brilliant of minds, without exploring too deeply the equally unavoidable indignities of advanced age, the film humanises Holmes in a way that few movies do.
(Reviewed 7th November 2015)