'Mr. Holmes': A poignant last-case scenario
Steven Rea, Inquirer Movie Columnist and Critic
Posted: Friday, July 17, 2015, 3:01 AMhttp://www.philly.com/
Ian McKellen brings a sad quality to the elderly title character in "Mr. Holmes."(AGATHA A. NITECKA / Miramax)
For the doubters among us who still believe Sherlock Holmes to be a fictional character, consider the sad and lovely Mr. Holmes. Ian McKellen, his face weathered and weary, eyes haunted with unfinished business, clearly doesn't think Holmes an imaginary hero, an eccentric make-believe sleuth popularized in magazines and books. To watch the actor, who plays the famous consulting detective of Victorian London in the long years after he retired and retreated to the countryside, is to see a gentleman with a lifetime of extraordinary experiences moving through his days. He is absolutely real.
He is also a man in profound pain: The memories of all those experiences, all those strange mysteries and exotic cases, are slipping from his mind.
McKellen's Holmes hobbles around a cottage in South Downs with a view of chalk cliffs and sea, tending to his bees. He is in his 90s and in increasingly fragile health. He treats his long-suffering housemaid, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), with, if not disdain, then distance. Yet, clearly he depends on her - and she him. Her son, the sparkling Roger (Milo Parker), pokes his nose into Holmes' affairs, sneaking into his study to read the manuscript the old man is trying to complete.
It is an account of his last case, the story of a woman, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), and her husband (Patrick Kennedy). The latter comes to Holmes' offices, concerned about his wife's odd behavior, asking him to investigate. Beautifully directed by Bill Condon - whose Gods and Monsters also starred McKellen - Mr. Holmes goes into flashback mode as its subject does: Holmes recalling details of the case and writing them down, as shards of memory come together.
Mr. Holmes is about how the past defines us. It is also very much about regret and trying to put things right. Holmes, the famous logician, comes to realize, too, that there is a place in human nature for emotion, for empathy. Identifying a problem with utmost clarity isn't always the same as solving that problem. To point to the source of someone's despair isn't the same as ridding that person of it.
If Mr. Holmes has a quiet, rueful aspect, the film can also be sly and amusing - and warmhearted. We watch Holmes take Roger under his wing. A visit to a London cinema finds Holmes watching in comic horror as an adaptation of one of his old cases, with its Basil Rathbone-like star, flickers on the screen. (Speaking of adaptations,
Mr. Holmes is based on Mitch Cullin's 2005 novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind.)
More jarring, we see Holmes visiting Japan (in search of an herbal medicine to help with his memory), wandering the ruins of Hiroshima. And there are the flashbacks with the somewhat younger Holmes, shadowing the mysterious Mrs. Kelmot through London streets, ultimately taking a bench alongside her.
Their conversation would echo in the detective's mind for decades. The look of regret on old Sherlock's face is as authentic as it gets.
Mr. Holmes ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Bill Condon. With Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.
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'Mr. Holmes' review: Ian McKellen is here, and the game's afoot
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on July 17, 2015 at 8:35 AM, updated July 17, 2015 at 8:44 AM
It is the story of the great Sherlock Holmes, in retirement, nearing the end of his days, puttering about with his bees, puzzling over one last case. Clear-cut enough, perhaps.
But elementary? Not at all.
Instead "Mr. Holmes" is a marvelously layered tale about knowledge vs. wisdom, celebrity vs. reality, fiction vs. fact and the tiny yet ever-mounting indignities of age.
It's also a terrifically acted, warmly emotional treat.
This should not be a surprise coming from Bill Condon. A talented writer and director, he's lately been the go-to person when you needed to make a musical film that actually understood musicals ("Dreamgirls") or to reheat a feverish romance with some genuinely feverish romance (the climactic "Breaking Dawn" episodes of the "Twilight" saga).
But my favorite films of his were always the earlier, quirkier ones – not just the low-budget horrors Condon cut his incisors on, but the marvelous "Gods and Monsters," with Ian McKellen, and the intelligent and daringly ahead of its time "Kinsey" withLaura Linney.
Both those stars return here – engendering loyalty is apparently another Condon talent – and the movie shows them off beautifully.
Linney is a bit more uncertain at first – she doesn't seem quite at home in her country Irish accent as Holmes' housekeeper – but she has a couple of extraordinary scenes near the end. And McKellen is, throughout, a treasure, capturing Holmes first as an assured man in his 60s, nearing the end of his career, and then an elderly fellow in his 90s, nearing the end of his life (but still quite capable of appreciating it).
The idea of the film (based on the novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind") is that in 1947, Holmes is finally slipping into senility – the cruelest of ailments for such a formidable intellect.
But he's still fighting to keep the synapses firing, mostly by trying to recall the details of his last case – long forgotten but, he's beginning to suspect, a highly personal factor in his retirement.
In fact, Condon intercuts three stories here. There is a flashback to the Edwardian days of that crucial case; another, briefer flashback details a recent trip to war-torn Japan. And then there is the main story, in which we see the consulting detective's budding friendship with his housekeeper's small, inquisitive boy.
It sounds complicated – and for the longest time, the Japanese subplot seems like a distraction (until it isn't) but Condon's storytelling is clear-cut and full of detail.
Much of that information, of course, comes from the lush period touches – the enormously ornate London furniture now crammed into Holmes' country cottage, the haunting sounds pulled out of a forgotten instrument called a glass harmonica.
But the best of it, as in Condon's other movies, are the details of emotions, fleeting but just as quickly caught – true concern camouflaged by flashes of impatience, unutterable despair masquerading as simple grief.
Of course, it's easier to record those quicksilver changes when you have an emotional chameleon like McKellen, whose face shifts to show every phase of this man's journey – from erudite inquisitor to pained victim, from superiority to confusion, regret to acceptance.
Yet while it's McKellen who makes him a man, it's Condon who makes him a touching metaphor for all of us who've ever felt we understood anything or anybody because, like the great consulting detective, we'd noted its externals, peered at it through a magnifying class and made a list of every fact. Not realizing that it's that kind of preening intelligence that's the worst idiocy of all.
Because really "Mr., Holmes" is about learning the final, greatest lesson in this world – that nothing is quite as important in life as knowing that you don't quite know everything about life.
Ratings note: The film contains violence.
'Mr. Holmes' (PG) Roadside Attractions/Miramax (94 min.) Directed by Bill Condon. With Ian McKellen, Laura Linney. Now playing in New York. ★ ★ ★ ½