Mr. Holmes

July 25, 2015
Ian McKellen in 'Mr. Holmes' (2015)
Ian McKellen in 'Mr. Holmes' (2015)

One of the most enduring characters in popular literature, Sherlock Holmes has been played by several generations of actors. Basil Rathbone (1892-1976) remains the archetypal Holmes, setting a lean and angular standard perpetuated by most of his successors. Robert Downey Jr. is the exception, although his two Holmes movies could never be expected to please the purists.

Ian McKellen is a mere 76 years old, but in Mr. Holmes he plays the great detective as a doddering old man of 93, struggling with an increasing debility of mind and body.

It’s a wonderful test for McKellen who has to portray Holmes clinging on to his legendary acuity despite the ravages of old age. It’s a balancing act that might have been farcical in the hands of a lesser actor.

McKellen’s performance is so good that he makes a rather slight film into a low keyed mystery drama that holds one’s attention from first to last.

Mr. Holmes has been touted as a successor to Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon’s 1998 movie in which McKellen played James Whale, the director of Frankenstein. I’d say it’s much better than that shallow, sentimental feature, which felt like a gay version of one of those geriatric romances that take up so much screen space nowadays.

Mr. Holmes is set in 1947. The aged master has given up his apartment in Baker Street and relocated to the Sussex countryside, where he lives with a widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her 10-year-old son, Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes spends his days pottering around in his study, amidst his scientific equipment and papers. In his dotage he has become a dedicated bee-keeper, partly because he is investigating the health benefits of royal jelly, which he extracts from the hives.

Lately Holmes has become interested in another substance, the prickly ash, and has made an arduous trip to Japan to secure a specimen. He is looking for a remedy for his failing memory, which is making it impossible to write up an account of his own last case.

Holmes is no fan of the racy, fictionalised versions of his adventures penned by his late friend, Dr. Watson. He understands Watson’s need to take literary licence, inventing details such as the deerstalker hat, which he has never worn, but he is determined to set the record straight on at least one occasion. If only he could remember…

The spine of the film is Holmes’s relationship with the precocious Roger, who has read Watson’s stories and imagines himself a detective in the making. It is his conversations with Roger that help Holmes recall the details of the case that closed the book on his career. The memories return in fragments, as if being salvaged from a broken down hard drive, and are relayed to us through a lengthy series of flashbacks.

This dipping in and out of the past could be confusing, but Condon holds it together, partly because the story is paced at about the speed at which Holmes walks. As the jigsaw puzzle is assembled we are meant to see the case as proving so traumatic to Holmes that it prompted his retirement. His slow recollection is self-administered psychoanalysis, extracting the truth about a repressed event. The drama remains lukewarm, but it is only a vehicle for a greater purpose: to show an old bachelor’s dawning awareness that the rigorous exercise of logic and intellect is not sufficient for an understanding of the human heart.

Holmes learns this late lesson partly through his visit to Japan, where he sees a grief-stricken man laying stones in a circle on the scorched earth of Hiroshima; and mostly through his growing fondness for Roger, whom he enlists as an apprentice bee-keeper.

It is a little disappointing to see Sherlock Holmes portrayed as a frail old codger, stricken with remorse for his insensitivity. The moral of the story is a depressingly Christian one: we are all weak and fallible flesh; we must have compassion for our fellow human beings, and not set ourselves apart. One gets the impression that this is supposed to be redemptive, rescuing the elderly Holmes from his intellectual coldness and pride – but it’s only the quality of McKellen’s performance that makes this vaguely credible. I’d much prefer to keep thinking of Sherlock Holmes in his prime, enjoying an effortless superiority over mere mortals.

Mr. Holmes
Directed by Bill Condon,
Written by Mitch Cullin & Jeffrey Hatcher, after a novel by Mitch Cullin
Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Tamiki Umezaki, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy
UK/USA, rated M, 104 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25th July, 2015.