I don’t think it is actually possible for the human race to become sick of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth, the most famous detective, fictional or otherwise, to have ever graced the pages of a book, or the small or big screens. Just as it seems that Holmes and Watson are no longer as culturally relevant as they once were, they pop back up in new and interesting ways. Within the last few years, Robert Downy Jr’s pugilist action hero raked in big bucks, Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern day incarnation made him a megastar, and Jonny Lee Miller’s New York based Holmes remains a staple of American network television.
Into the mix of these adaptations, all outracing the other to try and alter Holmes in different ways, comes Bill Condon and Ian McKellen, teaming up for the second time after 1999’s acclaimed Gods And Monsters. Though the tale of an elderly Holmes approaching a last mystery is not new, it is not something that has been tackled in a while, and in a world that has become seemingly obsessed with modernising Sherlock, I looked forward to an attempt to place him in a more appropriate time and place, and to the performance of the ever-great McKellen, an actor who rarely does any wrong. Would Mr Holmes prove itself an exception to his usual stirring record, and to the generally high quality of recent Conan Doyle adaptations?
In 1947, the 93 year old Sherlock Holmes (McKellen) has retired from his former life of solving mysteries and pursuing criminals, to focus on the apiaries of his countryside house, which he shares with struggling housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her precocious young son Rodger (Milo Parker). Returning from a trip to Japan with a rare plant he hopes will jog his failing memory, Holmes desperately tries to remember his last case, and what he must have done, or failed to do, that caused him to quit detective work altogether.
This isn’t your typical Sherlock story, as is made clear from the outset, as the elderly Holmes upbraids a young boy on a train for not knowing the difference between a generally peaceful bee and a much more dangerous wasp. Screen depictions of Holmes often portray him as separate from others and aloof, but not mean. But here is the very definition of a cranky old man, being bothersome for the sake of it, and seemingly annoyed with everything in life, save his bees.
Indeed Mr Holmes is at pains at times to mock those very portrayals of the famous detective, with Holmes decrying Watson’s imaginative retellings of his adventures and the various eccentricities – the pipe, the famous deerstalker, even the iconic address – as things her merely put up with that were very far from the reality of the actual PI. This is a story both different and similar to the sleuth we know and love, a film that shows a very different side of Holmes as we constantly look back to a more familiar figure.
Beyond anything to do with solving long forgotten mysteries and analysing clues, Mr Holmes is simply a story that is well trod but very emotive: that of an old man, once in proud control of his faculties, now slipping towards an inevitable and terrifying senility. Losing one’s mind is a terrible thing, and it is, perhaps, even worse for Holmes, having possession of one of the finest minds of his generation. There are many of us, myself included, who have suffered the heartache of seeing an elderly relative or friend go through this process, losing who they were because of the advance of age, and Mr Holmes will speak to those people, through its simple portrayal of a geriatric man scared of an encroaching blankness. Some of Mr Holmes’s best scenes are simply Holmes dealing with this problem, as he tries to remember his last case, or simply struggles to get out of bed without falling.
None better perhaps than Ian McKellen to play that role. His Holmes retains some of the key characteristics of other versions, old and more recent, but the McKellen stamp is also clearly to be seen. The Gandalf comparisons are unavoidable, and there is something a bit wizard-like in the knowledgeable but gruff Holmes, but McKellen gives him the right dose of desperate humanity at other moments, whether he is urging Rodger to treat his mother better or contemplating his infirmness.
Condon’s direction does a stellar job of letting McKellen do his thing. Condon has a gift for getting Holmes to dominate the frame, be it in medium or close-up shots, and some of best visual moments are when we really get to explore the aged Holmes’ face and the changes that are taking place there. No one else gets to challenge Holmes’ domination of the camera, but that fits with the kind of titanic persona that Condon is trying to create. But it always comes back to that frailty that is becoming apparent, like a statue of Ozymandias crumbling to dust in the desert.
But he is still Holmes, even if he is going to the ends of the earth to find ways to make sure this remains the case, his obsession with Japan’s “prickly ash” plant a recurring plot point. He can still, as young Rodger puts it, perform his “thing”, that fascinating talent for visual analysis and deductive reasoning, which makes Holmes Holmes. But determining why bees are dying, or where his housekeeper has been from the soot on her dress is one thing. That’s mere filler. What the audience wants from a Holmes story is genuine mystery, and Bill Condon supplies this through a series of flashbacks.
One of Mr Holmes’s great strengths is how these flashbacks, to a dark case involving a grief stricken young wife and her aggravating husband, props up the plot, teased out to the appropriate degree, skilfully worked into the larger narrative as Holmes tries to piece together his failing memories, having to stop the retelling whenever the lights in his mind grow dim, usually at just the right point to hook the audience in a bit more. Those seeking the more traditional Holmes will find it here, that confident condescending private eye, investigating a seemingly disturbed woman with murder on her mind, with all of the associated flourishes and tricks, as Holmes finds reams of explanation and exposition in the simplest details. But those wary of seeing the same old thing, as I was, will not be disappointed either. Because this is the case where Holmes did or witnessed something terrible, bad enough that it made him retire: the real mystery is in figuring out what this thing was, and in that exploration, Holmes’ last case takes a much darker and more philosophical tone, making it a true thinker by the time all of the secrets are revealed. Holmes presses on with his tale of this last case as a desperate search for himself, but it is clear long before the finish line that he may not like what he finds.
A secondary mystery revolves around another set of flashbacks, from Holmes’ time in a Japan just starting to recover from World War Two. Again, there is more than meets the eye to the offer of finding a plant famous for its medicinal qualities but frustratingly rare, and while much of this section of the narrative seems a bit sideshow upon reflection, there is still a fascinating contrast to be found between the iconically western Holmes and the land of the rising sun.
Much also comes back to Holmes and his bees, the insects sometimes being the only things that Holmes seems to profess any attachment towards. He seems to keep them just for the royal jelly harvest, to help with his senility, but there is a deeper obsession there. The apiary is like a portion of the world that Holmes still has a major stake in, treating the appearance of dead workers like a grisly murder that is of the utmost importance to solve. Like the worry of his last case slipping away from his mind while remaining resolutely fixed there, the bees buzz around the outskirts of the narrative, a constant presence that must be cared for and maintained, lest they be lost forever.
The bees also allow for the evolution of the relationship between Holmes and Rodger, which is the cornerstone of the whole film. It’s fairly stereotypical stuff of course, the old man not far from death finding solace and companionship with a young boy. Rodger adores Holmes and see’s his history and his modern day apiary training as an escape from a humdrum existence under his widowed mother, who wants to move away from the area and seek opportunity in the city. So, a simple and natural conflict is created between the three. Holmes happy for an unlikely friendship and a chance to teach, Mrs Munro wanting her son to acknowledge more of the reality of the world, and Rodger stuck in the middle, being vied over by these contrasting viewpoints. This is Milo Parker’s first serious run out on the big screen, and is indicative that he might have good things to perform for us in the future. Child actors are too often unable to “bring it” when it counts, but Parker does, in a performance that lacks any OTT elements, but seems a much more realistic depiction of a prepubescent boy in such a time and place, caught between the last vestiges of childhood and the troubling onset of adolescent rebellion.
While it is nothing new to screens, the relationship between Holmes and Rodger evolves nicely, a paternal thing that stops short of all-out sentimentality. Holmes doesn’t want to be a father to Rodger, but he is lonely, a situation made clear in subtle tones and suitable dialogue. The relationship with Rodger also allows for a decent contrast with Mrs Munro, a woman who grows increasingly embittered with Holmes, who seems to represent the awful certainty of where she is stuck in life, caring for others who do not appreciate her.
If there is a strength to Jeffrey Hatcher’s adapted script and his direction in Mr Holmes, it is the way that this threefold path – between the primary flashbacks, the secondary flashbacks to Japan, and the “present day” interactions between the three principals – are balanced with each other. Condon seemingly has a knack for proper pacing and knowing when it is best to leave off one plot and jump to another. Mr Holmes contains no clipped moments, but takes its time with each scene and lets the characters and the setting breath, and with a contained enough running time, manages to blend everything together into an enjoyable whole. The film is a slow burner, as any good mystery story has to be, but not too slow. The revelations in the mysteries will satisfy, and while certain elements of the last act become a bit too expected and by the book, all the way up to the very ending, I don’t think audiences will be disappointed by the way that Mr Holmes turns out. Even in a tale that is showing a darker shade to the Holmes story, Mr Holmes remembers that it is still about that stirring central figure, and the best traditions of how his tales usually end.
A rich colour palette and some breathtaking wide angle shots bring this little strip of the English countryside to life, and do the same for flashbacks sequences sent in metropolitan London, its neatness belying its appearance as an untrustworthy memory, or ramshackle Japan, where the fires of Hiroshima are still burning. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler’s work is exceptional throughout. The set construction is immense, with the little details, be they books, scientific instruments, clothes, writing materials or anything else, fill the background and make everything seem that much more vivid. With the buzzing of bees in the countryside or the bustle of crowds in London or the keening of survivors in Hiroshima, the places of Mr Holmes seem very much lived in, a triumph of “period” replication.
No text messages on the screen here or more hockey ways of showing the Holmes method, just old fashioned detective handiwork and workarounds, shown off with simple angles, quick cuts, reflective surfaces and passing trains and people. The hustle and bustle of these days is contrasted sharply with the solitude of the present day, where the main three characters are sometimes the only people onscreen. The “younger” Holmes in the flashbacks is created really well, standing as a marked contrast to the more ruined man that exists in the present day.
Mr Holmes also deserves some kudos for its two key female characters. Mrs Munro isn’t just a Mrs Hudson stand-in, she’s a three dimensional character with worries, cares, dreams and regrets, who wants desperately to craft the best life for her son and to keep him from any harmful dreams, haunted by the memory of a husband who stepped too far beyond his sphere. She’s a compelling woman, whose morose demeanour and parenting struggles adds a welcome dimension that was unexpected to Mr Holmes. Laura Linney’s role is less prominent than the promotional material made it seem, but she, like McKellen, has long moved past the point when she had to prove herself as an actress. Desperate, fearful and with a a certain air of sadness that must be so hard to find, Linney’s Munro serves as a suitable contrasting presence to Holmes.
And, in the flashbacks to his last case, there is the unfortunate Ann Kelmot, a woman left devastated by the medical failings and societal unfeeling of her time, that Holmes must investigate and, ultimately, attempt to save. While it is impossible to elaborate without ruining the true revelation, it is enough to say that Kelmot has hidden depths in her plight, that are quite unexpected, with Hattie Morahan’s performance reaching a very noticeable height in her last scene. Mr Holmes is a film where women are secondary characters to be sure, but they are not placeholders or living props either, and showcase a humanity and believability that other recent Holmes adaptations have often failed to achieve.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s script, adapted from a novel by Mitch Cullen, is an understated but strong one. From the moment Holmes admonishes his young train passenger that wasps are “a different thing entirely” to bees, Holmes is written with power and purpose. Mr Holmes is a tale where Holmes, and not Watson, gets to narrate one of his mysteries, and the differences are subtle, but still noticeable. Holmes thoughts on the limits of fiction, the vulgarity of his imaginative persona and the tragic lessening of his mental prowess are all wonderful moments, but the script is perhaps at its best whenever Holmes is breaking out of this section of his personality, as he carefully explains the realities of detective work to Roger (“When a man comes to see a detective, it’s usually about his wife”), or playfully informs Mrs Munro that he has “never been bit” by teethless bees. The dynamic between Holmes and Rodger is a verbally strong one, as is that between Rodger and his mother, a decent replication of a fretful parent and a son on the verge of teenage years, clashing for the first time in a way that they previously had not.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-The contrast of an elderly Holmes with the aftermath of Hiroshima was inspired. You could really sense the feeling , as Holmes surveys the ashes, of his world fading away, to be replaced by a much harsher one. Late on, as Holmes arranges the stones to commemorate his deceased friends, it is very much like the closing of a chapter, and in a larger sense than just this story.
-I’m sure Holmes purists won’t be too enthused by the resolution of the primary mystery. That Homes should fail in that matter might rankle. But it made for a really fascinating character angle, the detective having to confront his own loneliness and mortality for the first time, and balking at a chance to alleviate them. A choice which, naturally, just leads to more disasters.
-I did like that tertiary mystery, with the attack on Rodger and Holmes figuring it out before Mrs Munro destroyed the insects out of rage. While hardly on the level of Moriarty, it was still a nice round question mark to be explored, and tied into the larger narrative nicely.
-Very enjoyable was the sequence featuring Holmes watching a filmed adaptation of his last mystery, where the title role was played by Nicholas Rowe, who played the lead in Young Sherlock Holmes back in the eighties. Very Basil Rathbourne.
-That one of the films key closing points should be discussing the true worth of fiction, as a source of escapism and comfort, was surprising, but provided a nice cap to the mystery regarding Umezaki’s father that comes up late enough in the film. Holmes is a man defined entirely by his fictional alter-ego, as Watson wrote it, and, in part, Mr Holmes is a story of how Holmes comes to recognise that the eccentricities he was imbued with aren’t such a bad thing really.
-The film has a fairly by-the-books happy ending, though of course Holmes is still an old man facing into his final days. But it is something he has come to accept, with his life’s work finished and still some things to live for. And that’s a nice happy message to go out on.
Mr Holmes seems very much a film about the difference between Holmes the legend and Holmes the man, with Condon wanting to explore the dissecting point of myth and memory. Holmes, in Mr Holmes, is a man who does not seem to be quite sure who he is anymore, or if, after his adventures started to become well known, he was ever the same person. For someone in that position, fiction becomes a monstrosity, a demon to be battled.
But the film then becomes the story of how Holmes realises that such a battle is an unwise one, especially as his current woes come from having rejected the reality of his last case. Fiction has its many uses, myth is sometimes preferable to hard fact. In this, Condon crafts what I think is a very effective meta-narrative on Holmes and fiction. Sure, this is a tale about the “real” Holmes dealing with harsh realities. But in telling that tale, Condon seems to be urging his audience to have greater love and appreciation for the “popular” Holmes, the legendary detective, whose stories might be over the top and fantastical at times, but are ultimately a joyful example of the imagination doing good works.
On his own merits, the Holmes presented here, significantly different to other incarnations, stands up tall, in no small part to McKellen’s performance and the strong script attached. He’s a nice diversion from the usual Holmes depictions, one whose design will make deerstalker wearers appreciate their fictional hero all the more. Mr Holmes is a strange love letter to Holmes I guess, one that works when, in other hands, it might not have, with its cinematography and supporting cast aiding significantly in that effort. An enjoyable Conan Doyle style yarn mixed with a deeper analysis of the title character and his legacy, Mr Holmes can take a high ranking place in the larger canon of Sherlock Holmes works. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Miramax).