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Mr. Holmes
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by Jay Seaver

"Even when he gets old, Sherlock Holmes never gets old."
4 stars

One of the interesting things about Sherlock Holmes is that, for as much as he is one of the most iconic and well-defined characters ever created, he rarely subsumes an actor playing the role - for as fine as their performances are, the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Lee Miller, Robert Downey Junior, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, Basil Rathbone, and so on back, are all distinctly themselves as well as Holmes. Now, add Ian McKellen to the list of actors who don't disappear into the role, but are nevertheless part of an intriguing Holmes story.

The main action of the story starts in 1947, decades after Holmes has retired to the south of England to raise bees. He has just returned from a trip to Japan where he and correspondent Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) have been seeking the root of the "prickly ash", which Holmes believes will help to preserve his health and faculties better than the royal jelly he currently partakes of. He is re-investigating the case that made him quit detective work, when Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) hired him to get to the bottom of the odd behavior of his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan). He hasn't spoken to the late Doctor Watson in nearly that time, so his assistance comes from the housekeeper's bright son Roger Munro (Milo Parker), though his mother (Laura Linney) disapproves of how much time the two are spending together.

This particular mystery is not one that appears in "the canon", although it is treated as though it were published in Holmes's world, and even the Baker Street portion is in fact rather atypical of the stories Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. The case involves understanding the human psyche from the start, and some may feel that it sells the character short; for all that Holmes has always been an eccentric who solved crimes with forensics rather than by finding motive, he seldom displayed the sort of poor understanding of human behavior that is at the center of this story. Put that alongside how the screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (and, presumably, Mitch Cullin's source novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind) seems to go out of its way to mention that certain cherished details of the stories are inaccurate, and there are moments when this starts to feel like the sort of "fan theory" that, in order to fill in a perceived gap, must invalidate some of the actual material.

Of course, Sherlockians have been playing "The Great Game" since before the grandfather of whoever coined the fan-theory term was born, and if they're going to do so, it might as well be in the service of a story that has greater ideas than simply completing a timeline. Mr. Holmes soon reveals itself as an intriguing rumination on memory and how its gaps are filled. Certainly, at its center, there is the man who has always defined himself by the workings of his mind having to resort to writing names on his cuffs and having to rediscover what motivated him to become a country beekeeper as opposed to a London detective, but there are other facets as well. The most obvious is Holmes and Umezaki discussing how, at times, he has found himself changing his own behavior to match the image Watson created. Memories fade at the other end of life, too - Roger has little memory of his father, and that Holmes in many ways takes that place is understandably horrifying for Mrs. Munro. Throughout the story, both Holmes and the audience are confronted with how, despite his professed reliance on facts, they must sometimes be manufactured in almost involuntary fashion, because not having them is too terrible to contemplate.

Ian McKellen's Sherlock is at the center of this story, and while there are times when he doesn't quite feel like Holmes, that may be due as much to McKellen's distinctive voice as anything else, and sometimes that's a thing that the viewer just has to get over. Aside from that, he gives quite the enjoyable performance, capturing the seeming harshness of a man devoted to logic and facts above all else, but also capturing a playful side, as well as the surprising empathy that often lurks beneath that exterior. Even without the help of a fine make-up job, he portrays both the physical and mental effects of age extremely well, showing the process as accelerating but not particularly sudden. It's an aged and sometimes regretful Holmes, but one who is still mostly sharp in intellect and personality.

Milo Parker makes an entertaining foil, fortunate to have Roger written as a kid who has bratty moments enough to prevent him from being the sort of Mary Sue character he could have been. He's got a nice chemistry with McKellen, as does Hattie Morahan. That's vital, as the story pushes a personal connection even though the circumstances alone could make for sufficient regret. Hiroyuki Sanada is sneaky-good as Umezaki, seldom straying far from the formality and respect for elders of both his native and appropriated cultures but raising some well-hidden barbs when he does. Laura Linney, on the other hand, seems to get a bad hand as Mrs. Munro; her anger is blunt compared to the other characters', and Linney never really has a moment to display something that would rebuke the condescending opinions others give of the housekeeper.

Bill Condon directs, and he makes a pretty good fim out of a script that's got some problems. He's good at laying what the audience will need to know out later without making the film feel too much like a puzzle, as well as shifting the focus between three time periods. Some things don't quite work - not showing Watson's face when he is part of a flashback feels more like Madden using a gimmick to keep him a side character rather than a gut-punch of Holmes not being able to recall his greatest friend's face, if that's what he was going for - but many more do. Despite being close, Holmes's visit to Japan feels distinct from his "present", though they are separated by mere months, while the Edwardian scenes have a jauntier feel: Holmes may already be in his sixties then, but those sequences hint at what his prime was like. They indicate a love for the character that the filmmakers could otherwise just be deconstructing, as does a poke at the Basil Rathbone movies (whose casting is a fun in-joke for a movie that could be called "Old Sherlock Holmes") and a final act that manages to find a chance for classic Holmesian puzzle-solving in the middle of all the heavier activity.

In the end, that affection and willingness to be a Sherlock Holmes movie when it originally looked like the sort of thing that might look down on detective stories as lesser things won me over. In some ways, though, it's almost quaintly traditional in terms of how it reimagines the Consulting Detective, another version worth checking out during this character's quite frankly amazing recent revival, both for Sherlockians and those more casually fond of the character alike.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=28584&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/05/15 08:06:03
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Features Sherlock Holmes For more in the Sherlock Holmes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Berlin Film Festival For more in the 2015 Berlin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Maui Film Festival For more in the 2015 Maui Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/05/15 Kara Kudro Wonderful for kids and adults 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  17-Jul-2015 (PG)
  DVD: 10-Nov-2015

UK
  19-Jun-2015 (PG)

Australia
  23-Jul-2015
  DVD: 10-Nov-2015




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