Sunday 8 November 2015

Mr. Holmes

Public interest in the Sherlock Holmes character never seems to fade. Recently, we’ve had the hugely successful BBC drama Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and two films starring Robert Downey Jr as the legendary sleuth. But before them, countless actors – including Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett and Christopher Lee, to name but a few – have donned the deer-stalker, smoked the pipe and uttered immortal lines such as “Elementary, my dear Watson…”. So, with all of these adaptations knocking about, how can one do something different? BBC controversially updated the setting to present-day London (something they will change in an upcoming one-off special), for example. Other than that, what can you do? Sherlock Holmes in Space?

Out now on DVD and Blu-Ray comes Mr. Holmes, directed by Bill Condon and based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. What makes Mr. Holmes different to the endless other films and programmes, I hear you cry. The clue is in the casting. The 76-year old Ian McKellen plays the eponymous detective, set many years after the other stories you might’ve heard. 

The year is 1947. The long-retired Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), aged 93 and suffering from declining memory and health, lives in a remote Sussex farmhouse with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Unhappy about his ex-partner Watson's fictionalisation of the story of his last case, he hopes to author his own account but is having trouble recalling the details in his older years. As Holmes spends time with Roger, he comes to appreciate his curiosity and intelligence and develops a paternal liking for him, as details of his last case come back to him through flashbacks (in which McKellen plays a younger Sherlock, too).

Of course, the film belongs to the great Ian McKellen. As an aged Holmes, he hobbles about on a cane, uses his iconic magnifying glass for general day-to-day tasks rather than sleuthing, and shoots down remarks that he ever wore a deer-stalker or smoked a pipe. In the universe of Mr. Holmes, these were both ‘embellishments of Dr. Watson’ in his accounts of his and Holmes’ adventures. But this has split fans – some haven’t been willing to accept their pipe-smoking, quick-minded Victorian hero as a senile, cigar-preferring bee-keeper in the Sussex hills. However these changes were of course evident in the source material; Mitch Cullin’s novel. Laura Linney and Milo Parker deliver charming performances as housekeeper Mrs Munro and her son Roger, enjoying some great chemistry with a doddery old McKellen.

With its non-linear, flashback-packed narrative and beautiful period visuals, Mr. Holmes is a film of immense style. I’m sure this will offend Holmes purists, but I like what they’ve done with the character here. It’s almost post-modern in its conception and delivery, making the ‘real’ Sherlock Holmes nothing like the one we know and love. But there are a few narrative missteps. For example, Holmes’ travels through Japan in search of a memory restoring elixir seem out of place and tedious. It is one thing to take Sherlock Holmes out of his usual era and usual age, but to throw him into Japan on top of that just seems a little much. Empire Magazine said Mr. Holmes is ‘a stylish, moving and nuanced portrait of a man’ but ‘not necessarily a satisfying portrait of this man’ and to a certain extent I agree. It’s a very powerful character study but you may need to remind yourself when watching that this character isn’t just an unspecific ageing detective, but the iconic Sherlock Holmes. But there’s enough Holmes in him to make him recognisable, and like I suggested at the beginning of this review – you have to do something different these days. Mr. Holmes does something different.

In conclusion, Mr. Holmes doesn’t have a huge amount going on by way of plot or substance, but it’s an incredibly well-acted character study and a unique, fresh take on the Sherlock Holmes legend. Look out, Sunday afternoons. There’s a new film for you. 

Mr. Holmes doesn’t quite crack the case, but still walks away with a solid 3/5.


Sam Love

Mr. Holmes at CeX

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