Very few Sherlock Holmes films fail to satisfy on some level, even the comedies. With the exception of the 'action hero' films with Robert Downey Jr. I've enjoyed them all. Director Bill Condon broke through in 1998 with an excellent movie about director James Whale, Gods and Monsters. This year he reteamed with actor Ian McKellen for Mr. Holmes, a marvelous heartfelt ode to the consulting detective from Baker Street. McKellen's performance is even better than we expected it to be.
Jeffrey Hatcher's adapted screenplay takes a spin somewhat similar to that of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond -- Holmes is presented as a real detective who struggled with the literary embellishments presented by his biographer-dramatist-best friend Doctor John Watson. But this time there's no outright comedy. The layered storyline gives us Holmes at two different ages, as he recalls a tragic case from the past. The movie also works in a major, thematically rich homage to classic Alfred Hitchcock, which I would think every critic would have immediately picked up on.
It's 1948, and the 93 year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is in retirement on the Sussex coast. Concerned about his failing mental faculties, he's just returned from a trip to occupied Japan to secure an herbal plant said to hold off senility. But his host Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) had an ulterior motive to get Holmes to make the trip. Back home, Holmes cooks his little medicinal plants and tends several beehives -- the honey was rumored to be a remedy as well. His housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney of The Truman Show) resents also serving as nursemaid to a man that both she and his doctor (Roger Allam) think should move into a town apartment closer to medical help. The impoverished Mrs. Munro is a war widow with a precocious young son, Roger (Milo Parker). She wants to take Roger to a distant hotel, where they'll take menial jobs She resents the boy's constant association with Sherlock, learning about bees and rational analysis. He's almost smart enough to match wits with the old man. Holmes is trying to focus his mind to write his account of an old case, one that Watson never dramatized, and that revealed to him his human shortcomings. The case in mind was brought by Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), who was concerned about them mental health of his wife, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan). Despondent after losing children in childbirth, Ann disobeyed her husband, wandering in town and taking music lessons from a foreign woman (Frances de la Tour of Wombling Free). Holmes followed Ann and sympathized -- her obsessions were only an effort to find meaning and warmth in her life. Holmes regrets this case more than anything. A late life lesson he learns from the Munros inspires him to make amends in other directions.
What, no diabolical Moriarty? No fantastic mystery to solve? Mr. Holmes is a character study in which Sherlock runs up against the universal verities -- failure, loss, death -- and yet it doesn't come off as a moody art film. Although not a comedy it has a fine sense of humor. Watson and Mrs. Hudson are long gone. He has a comfortable retirement but is reaching out for these homeopathic cures to retain his mental faculties. Holmes makes a connection with the young Roger -- the movie is really successful in these scenes -- and the kid tries his best to pick up on the old man's 'intense observation' skills. In return, the stimulation of teaching Roger keeps Sherlock's mind clear. The central drama with Laura Linney is especially powerful, generating the sense of lost opportunities that preys on the aged. Mrs. Munro is given her own scenes to express personal loss, and we understand full well her feeling of vulnerability, wanting to keep Roger for herself and have some control over her life. If she stays with Holmes the day will come when he simply drops dead. She and Roger could find themselves in dire straits.
Some critics fault Mr. Holmes for a shortage of incident... what do they want, chase scenes? Razor killings? What unfolds is a series of fascinating relationships; if one finds people interesting the movie has plenty to give. Quaint details are kept to a minimum, with various people, including a Japanese woman, not believing Holmes is Holmes because he doesn't wear the regulation costume from Watson's stories. Holmes long ago realized that the legend has overwhelmed reality. One cute bit has Watson giving the Baker street address as a house across the street. They aren't bothered by tourists, but can observe the evidence of their popularity.
Some of the reviews I've read are unwilling to accept Mr. Holmes on its own terms. Even the New Yorker chided the movie for wasting our time with scenes about bees, as if they were an irrelevant distraction. A couple of critics mention the Alfred Hitchcock connection, especially the bit with the Ambrose Chappel reference. But few seem to realize that Mr. Holmes contains a fully-fleshed thematic repeat of Hitchcock's Vertigo, and not just in a few superficial details.
This part is probably a spoiler, even though I don't give away story surprises. If you like sensitive movies about how people really relate to each other, then wait before reading further.
The central deception with the character Madeleine Elster in Vertigo is that she's haunted by Carlotta Valdez, a La llorona figure driven mad and suicidal over the loss of her children, stolen by a cruel husband. "A man could do that back then, throw a woman away." (para.)
Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) has lost two children through miscarriages and can have no more; her husband is a cold fish who seemingly can give her no comfort, and instead seeks a quick cure. When that doesn't work Kelmot hires Holmes to follow Ann, seemingly to prove beyond a doubt that she's lying. He says he wants to help but he seems more concerned that Ann stop being disobedient. Ann is wholly alone.
Encouraged to lose her sorrow in music, Ann becomes obsessed with this eerie 'water glass' instrument, which some think has supernatural qualities. This just adds to the husband's disapproval; Holmes sees through it. There is no murder plot, of course, but we can easily see Ann being committed if she becomes too much of an inconvenience. Ann's possible madness aligns with 'Madeleine's' assumed madness.
As in Vertigo, Holmes falls in love with Ann, at least to the degree he is capable, by following her around and observing her. Scotty Ferguson's 'flaw,' his fear of heights, precipitates romantic disaster for him and the woman he thinks is Madeline Elster. It's a preposterous plot notion, but thematically it's pure gold. In Mr. Holmes Sherlock's 'flaw' has previously been his greatest asset, his ability to assess situations unemotionally. His meeting with Ann on a park bench is one of those 'if only' moments from the past that put a lump of regret in one's throat.
Sherlock appears ready to offer a sentimental solution for both Ann Kelmot and himself, and a moment passes when both their lives could be changed for the better. He instead falls back on unyielding convention. Just like Scottie Ferguson, Holmes' sincere best effort causes disaster. Mr. Holmes is the more human of the two stories. Holmes isn't at fault and he does nothing wrong... yet he can see later that he ought to have followed his instinct, not his codebook of professional behavior.
It's fairly simple but also profound. Moving, but not overstated. Good taste in storytelling is still with us.
The performances are delicate and shaded. There are no villains, not even the Japanese contact who lures Sherlock halfway around the world. Laura Linney has perfect control, and the kid actor Milo Parker is a nervy little guy without being a jerk. We like everyone we meet. I've read criticism of Ian McKellen's acting as using too many 'facial tricks,' which is baloney -- just spend some time with people on the North side of 85 years, in odd states of health and mental clarity. McKellen's accomplishment is magnified by the fact that he plays Holmes at two ages, at around seventy and at 93. The two ages are so clearly delineated that the movie can practically cut from one to another without confusing us. Sherlock at 93 is sharp and witty, but he also has bad days where he wakes up in a fog, his face slack and uncomprehending. And then he pops back with his full faculties. I think it's a realistic performance. McKellen shows great dexterity in a role far more difficult than the wizards and X-Men that have helped to make him so bankable.
Bill Condon's direction is his best work in years. The only material in Mr. Holmes that seems even questionable is Sherlock's surprise visit to Hiroshima, two years after the bomb. There's nothing offensive about it, as nobody makes any verbal pronouncements or ventures an author's message. The only irony might be that Holmes, the genius who could solve every kind of criminal dilemma of 1898, has little to contribute to the world of 1947, where a whole city can be blasted from the face of the Earth. I suppose it thematically links up with Wilder's Sherlock movie and the Mickey Spillane story subverted by A.I Bezzerides, Kiss Me Deadly -- in both stories master detectives trained to operate in a specific culture and technology are left clueless when confronted by futuristic threats (unchivalrous submarine warfare, spies that use sex / nuclear weapons.
Also, the visuals in Hiroshima don't quite click. A charcoal colored wasteland is all but decorated with twisted trees every four or five feet. It looks like a small interior set, with the background added with CGI. No big deal, but the artifice isn't a good fit -- as opposed to the airy 'house on the edge of eternity' feeling of Holmes' house back on the cliffs above the beach in England. The Hiroshima segment does introduce the idea of memory stones for departed loved ones. When Holmes sets up stones for his own memory garden, it feels good to see the old prisoner of the rational straight and narrow embrace something wholly nostalgic and sentimental. The conflicts in Mr. Holmes concede little to commercial expectations, which is why I like it so much. McKellen's Holmes is a rewarding human portrait. I'd like to grow old with this kind of dignity.
Lionsgate and Miramax's Blu-ray + Digital HD of Mr. Holmes is the expected crisp and accurate rendering of the theatrical experience. I can see why this show might not be a theatrical hit even though it was announced fairly well on NPR: how does anybody get an audience to care about old people in these times - in or out of a theater? Viewers catching up with the movie on Blu-ray will be very pleased. The visuals have a very big look, with Holmes' apiary tucked away on a green Sussex hillside overlooking a broad ocean. The music score by Carter Burwell is a nice fit too.
The only extras are three brief featurettes on the story, the character, etc, -- they're really just sound bites and movie clips. A paper insert contains the codes for HD download version.
There's not much more to be said. Although apparently a fairly modest production, we see trains and train stations and several London streets in different time periods. In the 1920s Holmes walks about in a top hat and day coat, looking quite dapper, a great man from another age.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mr. Holmes Blu-ray + Digital HD
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