By Alan Mattli
It may not be exactly wrong to say that Bill Condon’s new film is riding the coattails of the latest Sherlockiana craze that continues to have a significant effect on popular culture in general, even five years after the premiere of the hit BBC series Sherlock. To dismiss the adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind as a quick-buck production cashing in on a fashionable topic, however, would be missing the point entirely. On the contrary, with the beautifully elegiac Mr. Holmes, Condon, coming off a string of poorly received movies – two entries into the critically maligned Twilight Saga among them –, delivers one of his career’s very best works.
The film, set in 1947, revolves around a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) who has long turned his back on the thrills of being a maverick sleuth in the dark alleyways of late Victorian London. 35 years after his last case, whose ins and outs he is desperately trying to remember and to write down before he dies, he lives in a seaside villa in the south of England, in the company of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (an outstanding Laura Linney, even though her character is saddled with the most stilted lines in Jeffrey Hatcher’s otherwise fine script) and her son Roger (Milo Parker), with whom he tends to a small colony of bees.
There are no great mysteries to be solved in this story, no crimes to be uncovered, no grand schemes to be undone. Mr. Holmes is a quiet film that deals in the human side of a literary figure who, even within his own universe, is very much a character, an embellished “penny dreadful” hero which Arthur Conan Doyle’s narrator stand-in, Dr. John Watson, is peddling to a sensation-loving readership. As the movie progresses, we learn of the death of integral actors in the original Holmes canon – Watson, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, his housekeeper Mrs. Hudson –; the lenses through which audiences both fictional and real have seen Doyle’s iconic creation have fallen away, leaving behind only the man himself, who, at 93, finds himself struggling against the perils of old age.
This makes Condon’s film, which, all literary implications aside, is also a potent exploration of aging itself, an experience that is as poignant as it is heartbreaking. Seeing Holmes – literary history’s most adept, most recognisable logician – leaning heavily on his walking cane, scrawling marks into a notebook for every thing he does not remember, or forgetting the names of his companions carries with it the air of great tragedy; every gorgeously composed frame, every note in Carter Burwell’s wistfully magnificent score exudes tremendous sadness. (The fact that the imagined fate of a fictional character makes such an impression is a testament to the lasting appeal of that character.) The cases that do present themselves to this elder Sherlock Holmes are, appropriately, mundane miniatures: what is killing the bees in the apiary? Why has Roger been stung? Whom did he talk to the other day?
But the movie never overplays its hand or succumbs to cloying sentimentality. It moves through its three parallel plot lines, which are reminiscent of Condon’s Gods and Monsters, in well-measured, stately strides; its tale of physical and mental decline – and the problematic and fleeting notion of memory in general – does not descend into hopelessness and gloom, but is rather counterbalanced by moments of tender wit and glimpses of what Holmes’ mind, even in its reduced capacity, is still capable of achieving.
A lot of credit for this must go to “Mr. Holmes” himself, who is given a stellar screen incarnation by Ian McKellen (Oscar-nominated for his turn as Frankenstein director James Whale in Gods and Monsters). His nuanced portrayal flawlessly moves from geriatric to energetic, from playful to mournful, from pompous to gracious without the histrionics such a character could inspire in lesser actors. This is a performance of such effortless soul and depth that should give the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pause – a performance deserving of the majestic, quietly riveting, and deeply moving film that surrounds it.
★★★★★½ (out of six)
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