During the summer blockbuster season, it’s easy for smaller, more offbeat and adventurous movies to get lost in the shuffle. Every Tuesday for six weeks, local film writer and alumnus Paul Matwychuk (’93 English & Film Studies, ’98 LLB) will come to your aid by highlighting a cinematic “hidden gem”— a movie that deserves your attention, even if you might not be aware it exists. This is Paul’s last post of the series.
More than 125 years after the first Sherlock Holmes adventure appeared in print, filmmakers continue to make movies about the character, but it feels like it’s been a long while since anyone adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories in a straightforward way. Nowadays, Holmes adaptations tend to be stunts and what-if exercises. What if Sherlock Holmes teamed up with Sigmund Freud (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution)? What if Sherlock Holmes attempted to catch Jack the Ripper (Murder by Decree)? What if Sherlock Holmes lived in modern-day London (the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock series for BBC)? What if Sherlock Holmes was actually an idiot and Dr. Watson was actually the brains of the operation (Without a Clue)? What if Sherlock Holmes was an action hero played by Robert Downey Jr. (Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies)? Hey, what if he were a cartoon mouse (The Great Mouse Detective)?
The new drama Mr. Holmes springs from a similar source of inspiration. What if, the film asks, Sherlock Holmes lived to be 93 years old? (It’s the inverse of the larky, Steven Spielberg-produced 1985 adventure Young Sherlock Holmes, in which a teenaged Holmes and Watson investigate a mystery while attending boarding school. In a nice touch, Nicholas Rowe, the young actor who played Holmes in that movie, shows up in Mr. Holmes, playing Holmes in a cornball film adaptation of one of Dr. Watson’s stories that the actual Holmes goes to see one afternoon, scowling all the way through it.)
But Mr. Holmes aspires to be more than an exercise in fan fiction. It treats Holmes not as a pop-culture icon, complete with familiar catchphrases and costumes, but as a vulnerable, flesh-and-blood character. It wants to make being Sherlock Holmes seem poignant.
The film, which was adapted from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, takes place in a seaside farmhouse in Sussex where Holmes has retired from the detective business and contents himself with tending to his bees. He seems to have resigned himself to the physical limitations of old age, but his worsening mental deterioration is a much graver concern — he consumes jarfuls of the royal jelly produced by his apiary in hopes of slowing his brain’s decline. In Watson’s absence, he’s also taken it upon himself, for the first time, to write down one of his cases himself — as it happens, it’s the last case he ever investigated, the one that made him decide to retire from detective work for good. The film has a tricky structure that deftly weaves in and out of three distinct timeframes: the present day, where Holmes develops a paternal relationship with his housekeeper’s precocious young son Roger; a recent trip to Japan in search of more exotic remedies for his failing memory; and his last case, whose most important details Holmes hopes to recover and put down on paper before he forgets them entirely. Essentially, Mr. Holmes is a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which Holmes tries to figure out himself.
The main reason to see the film is Ian McKellen’s wonderful, lived-in performance as Sherlock Holmes. McKellen, who is 76, doesn’t just do generic old-man stuff here; he plays Holmes as a very specific old man, a man whose intelligence and deductive gifts have come to be something of a curse — he regards everyone he sees with suspicion, as if years of crime-solving has led him to assume everyone is hiding a dark, probably criminal, secret. That’s why his friendship with Roger is so delightful — at last he’s found a companion who is not only bright, but isn’t hiding anything at all.
Essentially, Mr. Holmes is a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which Holmes tries to figure out himself.
Mr. Holmes makes a good companion piece to an earlier collaboration between McKellen and writer/director Bill Condon, the 1998 drama Gods and Monsters, in which McKellen played an aged James Whale, the director of the original Frankenstein. In both films, we see an old man in his twilight years, reflecting upon his once-glorious career, coming to terms with his own failings as a human being, and making one last new human connection with a young male friend.
Gods and Monsters is probably ultimately the more emotionally affecting movie, but in its quiet, somewhat sentimental way, Mr. Holmes gets under your skin too. There’s an arresting sequence, for instance, where we see Holmes wandering through the ruins of Hiroshima with his Japanese host. It may be the most piquant, daring image in any Holmes film ever made: the great detective coming face to face with a deed whose horror and enormity Moriarty himself could never dream of.
Mr. Holmes is playing at Landmark Cinemas 9 City Centre Edmonton.
Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney and Milo Parker.
Photos courtesy of Entertainment One.