Film Review – Mr. Holmes
“The man beyond the myth.”
So asserts the promising, nonsensical tagline of Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen as Sherlock in his twilight years. A more humane approach to the world’s most famous detective sounds fresh, but Sherlock Holmes is so popular in part because he is mythic – an exceptionally adaptable, larger-than-life utterly fictional character. Arguing that ‘the real Sherlock Holmes’ (or Batman, the Ninja Turtles, etc..) would or wouldn’t do this/that is a popular and fun playground argument. The more grown-up, generally productive version of these discussions tends to discuss how Version Y of Character X compares to depictions in the past. In Mr. Holmes, these discrepancies are a matter of plot, with Holmes reckoning his own legacy against his chronicler Watson’s depiction. The returns it produces on this vast dramatic potential are mixed. The film is a modest success in focusing on the frail humanity of an old man who once was a detective, but stretches its protagonist’s legacy thin enough that one wonders what it gains by being a Sherlock Holmes story – or what this Holmes gains by solving the mystery of his own past.
McKellen’s portrayal of an aged Holmes is affecting. He’s 93 years old and showing it, long-retired to the countryside and regimen of royal jelly and prickly ash to slow his mind and body’s inevitable, accelerating decline. He is frustrated by the heroic accounts Dr. John Watson popularized (under the titles of the books author Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in our real world, with Watson as narrator) – especially the case that prompted his retirement. His powers of reasoning are still impressive, but his memory is slipping; he barely knows himself and its uncertain if he ever did. The effect is of sadly watching the decline of an acquaintance who you wish you knew better, and realizing that you never will.
All this makes for compelling viewing in a minimalist, ecce homo sort of sense (this frail old man is Sherlock Holmes; behold the ravages of age) but leaves little at stake in unraveling the mystery of the protagonist’s persona. Holmes’ Holmes is too unreliable – and decontextualized, with his friends dead and/or alienated – to help the audience meaningfully relate the man to his myth. At a meta-level, we just have too many Holmeses in our heads. This one is uncomfortable with his legend, but doesn’t explicitly articulate what’s wrong with it other than that he neither smokes a pipe nor wears a deerstalker hat. Extra-textually, he’s obviously different from hyperactive recent interpretations by age and energy. But which Holmeses was this Holmes once like or unlike? Strictly the original literary one? Basil Rathbone’s classic cinematic interpretation? The “high-functioning sociopath” Benedict Cumberbatch of the current BBC series Sherlock? There are a lot of variations to choose from: in 2012 the Guinness Book of World Records counted 254 Sherlock movies, making him the world’s most cinematically-portrayed literary character.
Which aspects of Holmes’ malleable persona this interpretation considers most crucial aren’t revealed until the end, bound up in the resolution of two cases Holmes recalls in bits and pieces. These storylines’ progression is arbitrarily driven by items randomly found around his house. One concerns a post-war trip to Japan at the request of a man who believes Holmes knew his father; the other is initiated by an overbearing man concerned for his depressed wife. With Holmes investigating solo, these tales lose the Holmes-Watson dynamic that Sherlock stories typically used to build characterization. As with the meta-mystery of Holmes’ personality, the true stakes of these events are only revealed as they are resolved (which is good), but they theretofore lack much forward momentum or tension. In the process of these recollections, the elderly Holmes uncovers a new mystery, with relevant information (as in any good mystery) introduced clearly but without calling too much attention to itself. Altogether, however, the journey Sherlock undergoes over Holmes’ two hours doesn’t seem to be enough to credibly shake the self-understanding that sent him into 35 years of self-imposed exile.
Throughout, the film’s more immediate and overarching framework is medium-realist domestic drama, as precocious Milo Parker builds an intellectual bond with the old man and the young boy’s mother (Laura Linney) – Holmes’ housekeeper – responds with discomfort at her own modest educational background and the British class system. Director Bill Condon wisely gives the actors enough space to sell the emotion, though as with the mysteries, this storyline is mostly a low-key mood piece until its not. Its engaging but not particular weighty, let alone enough so to bear the weight of Holmes’ legacy. The film picked an awfully deep thematic pool in which to contentedly wade in the shallows.
This is especially frustrating because McKellen and Condon made a similar, much better variation on similar elements of legacy, myth, alienation, and physical decline in Gods and Monsters (1998). In that film, McKellen played film director James Whale (best known for Frankenstein ) in his final days: suffering from the effects of a stroke; one of the only men in post-war Hollywood to be openly gay throughout a long career; flashing back to his movies and World War I, and developing an unconventional, sexually-conflicted friendship with his Korean War-vet gardener, played by Brendon Fraser. It had stakes, it had tension, and it was altogether more rewarding to watch a brain-fogged Ian McKellen work through his legacy by awkwardly befriending the gardener than passively-aggressively alienating the housekeeper.
Gods is a fictional story about a real person; Holmes seeks to make a fictional person seem more human. The former film is more tonally heightened; the latter more realist. They aren’t quite attempting the same things, but it’s difficult to escape how much more formally assured the elder film is and the time that’s passed in the interim. This work of older men seems more nuanced in its display of ages’ afflictions, but lesser in almost every other respect. Perhaps Mr. Holmes isn’t the work of the hungrier Gods team so much as the journeyman director of two Twilight sequels and the guy who played Magneto, Gandalf, and Sir Leigh Teabing. Or perhaps the prosaic realities of age are more on McKellen’s and Condon’s minds lately than story structure.
As a drama about old age, Mr. Holmes is affectingly intimate. As a series of mysteries, it lacks tension. As a reflective epilogue for fiction’s foremost detective, it’s disconcertingly modest. The mix of high concept premise and slow-paced execution doesn’t, nor is the film reflective enough to find interesting things to explore in this contrast. In a way, that’s a hopeful place to leave an old Holmes narrative: the mystery of how to do the story satisfactorily is far from being decisively solved.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with actor Hiroyuki Sanada from SIFF 2015.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhPPq9cmPCc&w=560&h=315]