Review: Mr. Holmes

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Film Night / Pexels

I live in Spain and never got the chance to see Mr. Holmes when it was first released and so November heralded a special excitement for the DVD release. Was it worth the excited wait and endless trailer replays?

Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes focusses on a declining 93-year old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) as he struggles to remember the details of the case that lead to his retirement 35-years previously. Now living in Dover with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), the narrative dances between the present day, a recent trip to post-war Japan to find a memory enhancing plant and Holmes’ blotted reminisces of his final case.

The film, based on the book A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, holds all the promise and excitement of seeing one of fiction’s greatest heroes coming back for one more round before he meets his maker. Unfortunately, the confused emotional themes of the plot and the limited indulgence of Holmes lore makes for a muddled film which feels more like one of the lesser Holmes mysteries and a Remains of the Day type exploration of class, status and emotional reserve.

Despite the name of the film, there is little here for Sherlock Holmes fans beyond the odd reference to Watson and Mrs. Hudson. Fans of McKellen and of the eponymous detective should not watch this expecting flashbacks to the Reichenbach Falls, insights as to what became of major characters or scenes of McKellen in the midst of a real Holmes story. Loneliness is the theme of the film and this Holmes (despite a noted ensemble of supporting characters in literature and previous film outings) is more alone than ever with little time given over to the famed Arthur Conan Doyle heritage.

Instead, we see the ageing Holmes in decline and forming a relationship with an intelligent young boy, Roger. With limited back story the audience connection with his present circumstances is restricted. The story itself is rather boring and it’s difficult not to conclude that the trailer injected more excitement into the film than the film itself.

Sentiment without context is the flaw of Bill Condon’s picture. Appreciating the film as an epilogue to the Holmes story requires the presumption that his life unfolded as the books depict. There are few  references and even fewer gems. The revelation that Holmes actually lived across from 221B Baker Street to confuse tourists was entertaining but isolated. Watson featured without seeing his face although we do get to see Mrs. Hudson and Mycroft Holmes.

McKellen doesn’t then get a picture that opens up the veins of Holmesian lore to which he can apply his talent and skill. While the make-up is perfect at establishing and distinguishing between the spritely 60 something Holmes (10 years younger than McKellen himself), it’s the presentation and McKellen’s performance as the 93-year old Holmes which is remarkable. Every grunt, sigh and grimace feels real and his mannerisms make for the real heart of a film trying to tell the story of an elderly man coming to terms with his life. What lets him down is a script, although based on a book, feels like it was written by an enthusiastic amateur which little understanding of the back history of the character.

Indeed, of the whole 1 hour, 45-minute running time the greatest moment that links character and the film’s purpose is a single line. Holmes, reflecting that Dr. Watson fictionalised the ending of ‘The Adventure of the Dove Grey Glove’ to make him look heroic, acknowledges that it was a sort of kindness but one that cements in his mind that Watson never really knew him at all. In fact, it confirms that Watson cared for him enough to do so and even came to care for him for a month when he slipped into a depression. It’s a tentative conclusion, and one not really given enough screen time considering the importance of both men to each other.

It’s an oddly conspicuous absence, particularly given the plot driving this theme is Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) and her isolation and grief. Holmes might have been crippled at 60 onward by his guilt at not being able to connect on a human level with a woman in need, but he had a stalwart companion in Watson for decades (the latter only leaving recently in the flashback to get married).

Today the tendency is to assume that when a character like Holmes doesn’t express himself or feel it is bubbling below the surface, somewhere deep down there. Certainly, this is how the present incarnation of Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock chooses to portray the relationship between Holmes and Watson. It is much more in line with the Victorian values and traditions and, indeed, of the original creation by Conan Doyle that Holmes, while a genius and a good man, was really as cold and clinically logical as he appeared. To modern audiences, this will be an anathema to the ‘bromances’ that populate most fiction and most likely disappointing given the presumption that Holmes and Watson cared deeply for each other.

With a tauter script, the Kelmot plot would have made this a more resounding outing, a distinction that really was within the grasp of this film. The film might have cashed in on the Moffat-esque trope of adapting Holmes by having traditional features like pipe and deerstalker as fictional affectations, it fails by having any playful indulgence of the heritage which it is trying to conclude. Patrick Stewart as Watson or a reference to Moriarty and Irene Adler would surely not be too difficult if time can be made for a subplot on bees.

It would be wrong to say I was anything other than mildly satisfied in the end. Here we have the trailers to blame, epic music and pace all suggesting this was the hero coming back for one more fight and a sentimental rollercoaster. It trudges like a slow, old locomotive and never builds up enough speed to break the barriers of its own limitations. Mr. Holmes lacks the emotional depth that it strives for and has a lacklustre series of flashbacks; a curious oversight for a film about the quintessential sleuth.

Instead, the essence of what could have been powerful, tragic, redeeming film is lost. It should be watched, if only for Ian McKellen’s splendid performance, but it is otherwise a missed opportunity to bring to life one of the best performances of Holmes that might ever be.

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