[Review] - Mr. Holmes

Courtesy of BBC Films
I'm always happy to accept another interpretation of Sherlock Holmes into the already bursting satchel of his fictitious adventures. He is, and this is true, the most adapted fictional character, ever. He's run the gamut, from the Victorian to the far future, on the big screen and small, in theatre and in animation. He's been involved in wars and faced monsters, been young and old (and had far more impressive brothers), been strictly and freely adapted from the comfort of his original stories, and seems to be one of those universal characters that will stand the test of ages. In another thousand years, it'll be him, Odysseus, and Batman all stood together in the popular imagination of humanity, after we've long lost all else about where we've come from in some yet to be known Dark Age.

Mr. Holmes, formerly A Slight Trick Of The Mind, satisfies any Baker Street Irregulars in that it manages to find one facet of Holmes that no one else is much bothered to explore: his humanity. And it satisfies the regular movie goer by being damned good. Never showy or exuberant, it is methodical (as befits the great deductionist) and content to let emotions drive the characters, and for the plot to wash over the viewer as gently as it does the characters. And of course, being anchored by the sort of performance you'd expect from Ian McKellen, there isn't a lot of room for error. Though that is not to say that he is the sole beam supporting this structure. In fact, and most surprisingly, he gets thoroughly upstaged.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that can tell you where you've been.


I was content to discover that Mr. Holmes had surprises in store. I haven't read the novel on which it is based, so everything aside from the fact that it concerned an aged and diminished Sherlock was something for me to discover. But with each revelation of the plot I found myself amazed. This film, directed with invisible patience by Bill Condon, simply takes Holmes to places that I never expected him to go. And I'll started with the most obvious one. Completely absent from the trailers is the fact that a not so small part of the film, told in flashback, takes place in post-WWII Japan. When the movie first presents this local, I was immediately struck by how unsettled a time and place that would be. The Japanese people would be in the deepest midst of recovery after the conclusion of the Pacific. But the most jarring scene was to come, which saw Holmes travel to the decimated remains of Hiroshima. It is a gut punch of a scene, and also gives us our first indication that this is not our usual Holmes.

The crux of this older Holmes is that, in his aged state, his facilities have become compromised. He's still sharper than the average mortal, but he's a shadow of his former self, writing names on his cuffs and writing a Doyle-style short story as a memory aid. But the greater side effect is that his senility has allowed a touch of humanity to leak in. This is less the stoic detective, who shunned personal attachment and avoided the intricacies of human emotions while becoming a master of the mechanics of human nature. His inability to see the trees for the forest in his youth has begun to resurface as grief and regret in his old age, and he struggles over what he believes are old failures, in part because he cannot remember his actions, but also because he's now viewing his actions in a new light. He's seeing himself as Watson did, and in the absence of Watson, he becomes his own critic.

It also reaffirms a well trodden notion, that Holmes can only be successful when he has a Watson to back him up. In the post-War period of the film, Watson is long dead, but even in the past Watson is absent, and Holmes forced to deal with the world on his own. The great failure that haunts Holmes in the present is one that he committed in Watson's absence, and without Watson's ability to see only the trees. When we first encounter Holmes in 1947, he has just returned from a mission of desperation, a mission whose intricacies get filled in along the way. He is a grumbly, absent minded obsessive with little tact and patience for what does not present a means to an end. He is, in short, Holmes as an old man. Quickly though, he becomes quite close to Roger, the son of his housekeeper, and a devoted fan of the Holmes of old. Holmes recognizes the spark of inquiry in him, and takes him under his wing, in much the way he once did Watson. And as Holmes and the film progress, no subtle is lost in showing that Holmes is a better man for having a partner. Not just someone to explain things to, but someone who can force him into action, and reel him back from action just the same.

Milo Parker, the 13 year old actor playing Roger, comes near as close as possible to showing up McKellen as anyone his age could. One would think the life and charm of the film would be McKellen's turn as essentially three very different interpretations of Holmes (and McKellen's turns, covering nearly thirty years and various dispositions, are remarkable), but no. The life blood of this film is Parker. In much the same way that Watson was Doyle's audience surrogate, it is through Roger that the elder years of Holmes are explained. It is through Roger that the pain of age is best expressed. And it is with Roger where almost the entirety of the audience's sympathy lies. I was reminded of Freddie Highmore's performance in Finding Neverland throughout, the rarity of a young actor who is able to stand toe-to-toe with a seasoned actor, and find a way to surpass them (bizarrely, like Highmore, Parker will follow up this introductory performance by appearing in a Tim Burton film).

The weak link in the film is unfortunately Laura Linney's Mrs. Munro, Roger's mum and Holmes' housekeeper. And it isn't any fault of Linney's, the character just doesn't have any meat to it. She is there essentially to give Holmes and Roger an adversary, which the film doesn't really need since Holmes' own mind serves that role admirably. As such, Mrs. Munro ends up being little more than a collection of standard issue obstacles that do little to slow Holmes down, because ultimately Holmes is in the right. She doesn't even fill the role of female lead, that role going to Hattie Morahan, the object of Holmes' obsession and the focus of his great failure.

As Holmes was often to insist, all the clues are there from the start, you just need to be able to recognize them. And Jeffrey Hatcher's script sticks close to that basic principle in setting up the film. If you know what to look for, the entire movie is laid out in the first act. Some conclusions are more obvious than others, and some are hidden well in plain sight. But it also sticks close to Doyle's essential notion that things are rarely more complicated than they seem. The plot is kept simple in each of the film's three time zones: the far past, the near past, and the present. In fact, Holmes aficionados might be disappointed that this is the least deductive version of the character put to film. His investigation in the past consists of little more than following someone from place to place. There is no grand plot at play, no arch nemesis haunting his steps. There is only failures, memories, and the guilt of both. It is an entirely human examination of a character that is often frigidly depicted. And an entirely character driven film. And we're in dire need of both, I'd say.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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