Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mr. Holmes: A Review (Review #735)


The Great Detective In Winter...

I am a proud Holmesian (the term Sherlockian having been hijacked by a fanatical group whose only point of reference to Canon is a BBC updated adaptation and who on more than one occasion have told me they think Sherlock is BETTER than Canon.  According to one Facebook acquaintance, he was told by a Sherlockian that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle should watch Sherlock to see how the character should REALLY be written.  Yes, some Sherlock fans ARE that stupid--which explains why they don't care that Season Three doesn't generally make sense, but now I digress).  

However, I confess that I don't deal with non-Canon works involving the Great Detective (unless you count The Great Mouse Detective and Young Sherlock Holmes, but I was a child who was taken where he was told to go and thus, had no control over things).  Never read things like the Mary Russell books, or new Sherlock Holmes stories, or the Nicholas Meyer books, or even the more recent Moriarty novel by Anthony Horowitz.  Another that escaped me was A Slight Trick of the Mind, which is the basis for the film Mr. Holmes.  As such, I cannot vouch for how close it stays to the novel.  I can say that Mr. Holmes is less about the crime and more about the personality of the Great Detective in his declining years (both in physical and mental faculties), who finds that a greater mystery is that of being human.

The story bounces between 1947 and 1922.  In the 1947 part, Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is a 93-year-old retiree, raising his bees.  He has one housekeeper, war widow Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).  Roger has taken an interest in the story Holmes is writing, which is his own version of his last case, the case that made him retire and which is the focus of the 1922 section.

Here, Sherlock finds himself alone, Watson having moved from their flat (which is across the street from 221B Baker Street, an invention of Watson's).  He accepts the case of Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy).  According to Kelmot, his wife Anne (Hattie Morahan) has fallen under an evil spell through the glass harmonica he allowed her to learn to deal with two miscarriages.  Anne has been acting strangely since the lessons were taken from her, and Holmes follows her, uncovering a sad truth about her activities.  Anne confides in Sherlock, but he declines her offer to share the loneliness together.  Anne nevertheless decides to take matters into her own hands, with tragic results.  His sense of failure is what causes Sherlock Holmes to retire.

This story, told in flashbacks, appears in bits and pieces, gradually taking shape over the course of the film.  Throughout Mr. Holmes, Sherlock finds his memory failing (he resorts to writing the names of people on his shirtsleeve).  Sherlock has bonded in his way with Roger, whom he finds an inquisitive mind.  He shows him how to work with bees, and Roger's hero-worship includes attempting to use the prickly ash concoction Holmes went to post-war Japan to get.  He also meets a fan, Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who is connected with Holmes in unexpected ways.  All the  while Mrs. Munro is not pleased by Roger's activities with the bothersome old man who is declining.  She opts to take a job with her sister at a new hotel, angering Roger.  Roger's new mentor urges him to apologize and they mend fences, but later on Roger is attacked by what we thought were bees.  Mrs. Munro, enraged that she might lose her son after losing her husband, is about to burn the bees when Sherlock has several breakthroughs both with regards to Roger and the case he was trying to remember.

Sherlock, having seen the power of human connection, tells Mrs. Munro that he will leave the house to her and Roger (who does recover from his near-death stings), and asks her to stay.  Holmes finds peace not just with himself, but with the Legend that Watson created.

We Holmesians know that Sherlock is brilliant but at times is not the most pleasant of people.  He can deduce things we'd rather not have others know, and truth be told Sherlock can't help himself. That's just the way he is.  I don't accept the idea that he was perpetually a cold, logical, thinking machine.  He on occasion can muster a deft touch with people.   That I think is what makes Mr. Holmes a fascinating portrait of this figure who must come to terms not just with his own failings as a person but also as someone removed from 'The Legend'.  This Sherlock is one who doesn't see himself in the stories Watson wrote (he tells people he never wore a deerstalker and prefers cigars to pipes).  While attempting to reinvestigate his final case, he goes to see the film adaptation of Watson's version of it, which is the first time he has ever seen any version of his cases.

While this Holmes finds the film version of the case, Sherlock Holmes and The Lady in Green (itself a wry spoof of the Basil Rathbone films like The Woman in Green), a 'pantomime version' of both the case and himself, having Nicholas Rowe, who played the lead in Young Sherlock Holmes play the Rathbone-like Holmes in the film within the film was an especially clever in-joke.  That was a nice touch, but the point of that whole scene was twofold: first, as a way of attempting to trigger Holmes' memory and as a way to see how the 'real' Sherlock Holmes wrestles with the 'reel' Sherlock Holmes. 

Mr. Holmes isn't about the mystery itself.  Far from it, for the actual case of "The Lady in Green", while not terrible, is not among the best.  Instead, Mr. Holmes is about the mystery of Sherlock Holmes himself: how his abilities to see in/through people did not prevent tragedy that could have been avoided if he had a more human and less thinking machine quality.  It is also about a man for whom the mind is everything slowly losing the abilities that defined him.  His memory is slipping, his health is declining, his old support system (Watson, his brother Mycroft, and I figure by extension Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade) are all gone.  What has he got?  Will he, THE Sherlock Holmes, be remembered, or will it be the version Watson created that will take over, down to the deerstalker and the embellishments Holmes didn't like?

Mr. Holmes does a fantastic job giving us a tale not of the crime, but of the legend as a man, a frail and declining man, one who has regrets but who also rallies when he finds an unlikely protégé.  McKellen does marvelously as both the detective and the very old man who might have lived too long (the visit to Hiroshima, where the elderly Holmes comes across the effects of the bomb, while perhaps a bit of a tangent, still give us an emotional jolt).  McKellen flows easily from the confident man investigating the case of Mrs. Kelmot and the ill man who finds the legend is overtaking the reality. 

I feel a bit for Laura Linney, who reminded me a bit of the late Lynn Redgrave in another Ian McKellen/director Bill Condon collaboration (Gods and Monsters).  Both are the disapproving housekeepers tending after an old man in his declining years.  Coincidentally, the Kelmot case was also reminiscent of another film: the detective following a beautiful woman who appears haunted, if not possessed by the spirits of the dead is as close to a Vertigo reference as one can get without being overt.  Whether either Mr. Holmes or A Slight Trick of the Mind had that in mind I cannot say.

Anyway, back to Linney, one of my favorite actresses.  She wasn't given a great deal to do, but in her scenes, particularly when telling Roger about how aspirations of a better life eventually cost his father his life showed what Linney can do with little.  Young Milo Parker was also quite good as the eager Roger, who finds in Mr. Holmes if not a father/grandfather figure, someone of particular interest to pique his growing intellectual and bee-keeping mind.

Carter Burwell's score is also of first rank, going from mysterious to almost light without being jarring. 

Almost everything in Mr. Holmes works (apart from the case, which again while not awful isn't the most thrilling).  I'm reminded a bit of the other Sherlock Holmes television show.  On Elementary, sometimes the cases aren't the most fascinating or wildly clever (yes, sometimes the criminal is obvious by the middle of the episode).  For its faults though, Elementary is a series I find does best when exploring the characters, particularly the prickly Holmes, who finds he does need people around him.  Mr. Holmes does this better, but it follows the same plan: having the case in question serve as a springboard to uncovering a greater mystery.

That mystery is, Who Is Sherlock Holmes?

Mr. Holmes is a worthy addition to all Holmesian homes...and Sherlock could learn a few tricks on seeing how the character of Sherlock Holmes should really be written and played.

Holmes and Holmes Again


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