Thursday, December 03, 2015

"Mr. Holmes": a brief review

"Mr. Holmes" stars Sir Ian McKellen in the title role as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes who is now showing signs of senility. Rounding out the cast are Milo Parker as Roger Munro, Laura Linney as Mrs. Munro, Hiroyuki Sanada as Tamiki Umezaki, and Hatte Morahan as Ann Kelmot. The movie is told partly in flashback and presents us with two primary mysteries from Holmes's past: first, his final case, which dealt with Ann Kelmot, a depressed wife who had suffered two miscarriages and who seemed to want to murder her husband; second, his time in Japan searching out the Japanese prickly ash, which Holmes intended to take in order to bolster his failing memory. The movie presents a third mystery that holds Holmes's attention in his present day (1947): the deaths of the bees in his apiary, a mystery the solving of which requires Holmes to recruit the help of Roger Munro, the young son of Mrs. Munro, Holmes's Irish(?) housekeeper.

Far from being a tightly written mystery story, "Mr. Holmes" is, rather, a desultory character study that humanizes the famous detective. Those who have read Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and short stories (I once read them all) know that Holmes's exploits were mostly chronicled by his faithful assistant, Dr. John Watson, and that Holmes himself was never satisfied with Watson's way of telling the stories. Holmes had long felt that Watson had a tendency to embellish and exaggerate, as well as to miss the fundamental point of each adventure. In "Mr. Holmes," the old detective has an interest in writing his own story—one that sets the record straight. He seems, at first, a lot like the Holmes from Conan Doyle's novels and shorts, but as the movie progresses, we discover that Holmes has become less ruthlessly logical and more open to the native irrationality of the human spirit.

Sir Ian, in his mid-seventies, is no spring chicken, but he does a very good job of portraying a 93-year-old who, despite the onset of senility, nevertheless possesses sharp wits and a keen intellect, but is frustrated by the ever-looming fact of his own mortality. His growing bond with Roger is one of the film's best aspects; Milo Parker does a great job with his charming portrayal of the gifted, inquisitive boy. Laura Linney does yeoman's work as a beleaguered mother and housekeeper who has her hands full caring not only for her sometimes-wayward son, but also for an aging and fall-prone Mr. Holmes. Her Irish accent (at least, I think it's Irish) sounds pretty good.

As I mentioned above, the movie isn't fundamentally a mystery story: it's a careful, deliberate character study, and a touching one at that. There's a very human dimension to this narrative that is largely missing from Conan Doyle's rather rarefied version of Sherlock Holmes. The movie's pacing is slow and stately; there were moments when I felt that this could have been a Merchant-Ivory production. The cinematography is gorgeous, showing us a storybook version of England that made my heart ache to return to Europe. I also thought I caught a whiff of Gandalf the Grey in Sir Ian's performance: you'll recall that Gandalf the wizard is actually a divine being trapped in (or assigned to) the body of an old man. McKellen's Holmes is much the same—a powerful spirit frustratingly imprisoned within a failing fleshly frame.

While "Mr. Holmes" won't get your juices flowing the way "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" might, I'd say it's still worth a viewing. Holmes, who is something of a sharp, cold, prickly figure in the books, finally looks approachable, even likable—possibly even lovable—thanks to this film.


No comments: