Sherlock, Plain and Tall

Mr. Holmes
(UK/USA, 104 min.)
Dir. Bill Condon, Writ. Jeffery Hatcher
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada
Ian McKellen stars in Mr. Holmes.
Photo by Giles Keyte / eOne Films.
“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” writes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Bascombe Valley Mystery” featuring the iconic detective Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock’s perceptive skills deduce an obvious fact, namely that people sometimes take for granted things that sit directly before them. Mr. Holmes, the latest film by Bill Condon (The Fifth Estate) fails to heed the good advice of its own super sleuth by overlooking the fact that dramatic embellishments sometimes make for better art and entertainment. This work of fan fiction re-imagines the world of Sherlock Holmes as a riposte to the fictions published by Dr. Watson, Holmes’s colleague and, in some ways, nemesis. The film, which adapts the book A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, presents Mr. Holmes without the deerstalker hat and pipe that make him iconic, and with fewer dramatic embellishments that make him such an enduring character.  Mr. Holmes is Sherlock, plain and tall, but the supposedly truer Sherlock it imagines is nowhere near as interesting as the detective of Doyle’s creation is.

Mr. Holmes presents a ninety-three year old Sherlock Holmes who has now retired to his cottage in the English countryside where he spends his final days tending to his apiary and writing a story that offers a corrective to Watson’s creative license. Mr. Holmes, as played by the great Sir Ian McKellen, is far more cantankerous than the younger “fictitious” Holmes of the short stories is, but he’s nevertheless charming in his own cranky and curmudgeonly way. He lives alone with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (she apparently doesn’t have a first name), played by Laura Linney, and her son Roger, played by Milo Parker, who is Sherlock’s budding Watson. This languid film cuts between past and present as Mr. Holmes struggles with his fading memory and revisits the final case of his career, which he feels reads especially false in Watson’s prose.

The film features three periods: the present-day narrative in which the elderly Mr. Holmes writes his story, a recent flashback to Japan that precedes the onscreen action by merely a few weeks and depicts Holmes in Japan meeting with a Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) to obtain a special herb to assist his memory, and the further flashback of the case in which Holmes tails a Mrs. Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) and re-examines the evidence to miss the obvious conclusion that still eludes him. The film misses the opportunity to engage audiences with Holmes’s brilliant mind since Mr. Holmes struggles to hold these three layers of narrative together with any rhythm or coherence. The glimpse into Mr. Holmes’s degenerating mind provides a humorless Barney’s Version in which the brilliant sleuth becomes an unreliable narrator of his own allegedly true story. The screenplay by Jeffery Hatcher (The Duchess) plods without much conflict or tension and Mr. Holmes offers the blandest, plainest mystery for Sherlock Holmes to solve even if it purports to be the most hypothetically authentic one. Nothing really happens here.

Characters can sit there and eat honey for ten minutes, but Mr. Holmes isn’t an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film. The film simply lacks the dramatic spark that viewers and readers relish in a Holmes mystery. This reimagining of the iconic character remains a step behind the original Holmes at his derivatives (the Guy Ritchie or Benedict Cumberbatch Holmes, say) and the film suggests that Watson’s variation on the great detective is more dramatically satisfying even if it fails to correlate with the truth. As a mystery, Mr. Holmes doesn’t deliver since its climax—a bee sting—might prove a great dramatic twist on season three of Downton Abbey and this plain, sedate mystery is as far from Baker Street as one can be. The lack of novelty is undeniably the point of Mr. Holmes and the film nevertheless delivers a perfectly watchable no-frills drama.

Mr. Holmes, however, more readily succeeds as a dramatic presentation of an old man who tries to reclaim control of his life before it ends. McKellen is splendid as Mr. Holmes and his subtle and nuanced take is an excellent performance of a man seeking dignity before death. His Holmes is shrewd but also senile, and the veteran actor shows a masterful grasp of the infuriating contradictions that complicate old age. His Sherlock is a great one because he observes like a sly fox but forgets how to state the case as eloquently as he did in the past—and continues to do in the fake version of himself that propagates in Watson’s fiction and its adaptations. McKellen masterfully conveys the film’s message, which says that even a brilliant observer can fail to read the signs of life if he remains detached to the nuances before his eyes.

Mr. Holmes complements McKellen’s previous collaboration with director Bill Condon by offering a literary slice of fan fiction akin to Gods and Monsters, which looks at the final years of Frankenstein director James Whale. Mr. Holmes never amounts to the drama of Gods and Monsters, which remains the best work of both McKellen and Condon’s respective careers, but it too immerses the audiences in the great mind of a man that loses its shape in his final days. Condon also draws strong work from his Kinsey collaborator Laura Linney, who elevates what could easily have been a thankless role, and gets a likable performance from young Parker as Holmes’s young conspirator and inspiration. The production is grand and stately (insert Downton Abbey reference once again) and it satisfies in its sedate and elegiac plainness: it’s an old-fashioned character drama that looks back to a day when stories didn’t need gimmicks and effects. Audiences willing to be patient with Mr. Holmes will undoubtedly enjoy the charm of McKellen’s Sherlock, but fans of the great detective himself might long for the deerstalker hat and pipe, or speculative twist, even if the Sherlock they love lacks any pretense to realism. The fact that Mr. Holmes makes obvious is that dramatic embellishments have their own rewards.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Mr. Holmes screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until August 6.