Sir Ian McKellen is Sherlock Holmes…well, sort of. At 76, an age when most actors have slowly retreated from the spotlight, McKellen, one of the finest of his or any other generation, shows no signs of slowing down professionally: all evidence to the contrary in director, Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes (2015), a movie that endeavors to put the kibosh on one of literature’s most beloved fictional heroes; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s cerebral super sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. Is it just me, or have others grown weary of seeing how the once mighty and galvanized creations from their treasured childhoods are steadily being torn down, reconstituted or entirely revamped for the ‘modern age’? I do not ever recall Sherlock Holmes being a problem for past generations to accept and digest. In fact, there was always a general acceptance to embrace history – as history – and not try to rewrite it, merely to suit contemporary tastes. If we were speaking of the works of Michelangelo or Da Vinci, this conversation would be moot. No one would suggest, as example, the Mona Lisa ought to be spruced up, perhaps with a nose ring and a little lip gloss, maybe even a bit of peroxide and a pair of earrings, clutching a cell phone instead of her shawl so as to make her (choke!) ‘relevant’ for today’s casual viewer. No – Mona is a classic – period! So is Sherlock Holmes.
One of the most celebrated and perennially revived fictional characters, by my way of thinking, there is still only one Mr. Holmes – at least, at the movies – and his name is Basil Rathbone; once astutely described as ‘two profiles pasted together’, though nevertheless, the spitting image of the famous Sidney Paget drawings accompanying the first volumes of Conan Doyle’s famed detective stories. For nearly a decade, Rathbone embodied this beloved figure as no actor before or since has been able (save, Jeremy Brett, as the BBC’s quintessence of the great man in made-for-television episodes). History has not been nearly as kind to the long line of character actors who have tried to make something of Dr. Watson – in the Conan Doyle novels, little more than the omnipotent storyteller, though not much of a ‘character’ within the stories themselves. I will hold to my assessment; that Nigel Bruce’s befuddled and portly Watson, opposite Rathbone’s aesthetic beanpole, remains the best of the lot; of his own design and the perfect comedic foil and appendage to our deductive genius. But I digress.
The Sherlock in Mr. Holmes is not Conan Doyle’s creation so much as a wan ghost flower of this former self; the screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, loosely based on author, Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind. Not a great start, if you ask me, as Cullin has decided to present Sherlock Holmes with a double whammy of calamities to face in his twilight years; the first, the only case to remain undocumented by the great detective, still nagging away at him from the peripheries of his deteriorating subconscious; and second, the ravages of old age – nee, Alzheimer’s – which has slowly begun to enfeeble Holmes’ mind. What could be more tragic than to have one of the greatest inquisitors of the late 19th and early 20th century reduced to the equivalent of a scholastic cripple, blankly staring out his window as his crumbling intellect indiscriminately sifts through the past and present, creating great uncertainty and confusion. Herein, I will confess; this isn’t the Sherlock Holmes I was hoping to see Sir Ian take on. He could have so easily been the best Sherlock Holmes we have seen in a very long while. I will simply go on record with my general disinterest, and occasional contempt for the likes of Robert Downey Jr.’s farcically played younger Mr. Holmes. I am also genuinely not a fan of either Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller’s impressions of this great man on TV.
Again, I digress. Condon’s movie is not the worst of the lot, not by a long shot; intelligently made and expertly played by McKellen and others in the cast. Still, it is a little much to expect an audience to simply write off such time-honored characters as Dr. Watson and Holmes’ cherished housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson (still most charmingly realized in the Rathbone/Bruce serial by grandmotherly, Mary Gordon); the former, explained away by McKellen’s Holmes as having married, then later died; the latter, not even referenced in passing in this movie. Sincerely, I am not loving cinematographer, Tobias A. Schliessler’s homogenized, teal-biased and desaturated camerawork; envisioning a rather bland mid-register to both the lush green fields surrounding Holmes’ Sussex farmhouse, and the starkly gray and incinerated remnants of Hiroshima after its nuclear holocaust. Frankly, I am fed up with too many present-day cinematographers who have seemingly taken their cue from the ‘stylistic’ approach first established by Janusz Kaminski. The purpose of great cinematography used to be (and still ought to be) to distinguish itself, not simply amongst the many creative elements gone into the creation of a motion picture, but equally, to set every movie apart from its competition. By and large, today’s visual approach to shooting movies appears to mimic everything Kaminski does, regardless of whether or not this aforementioned style suits the subject matter. Sherlock Holmes isn’t really the sort of tale to be told in bleached out colors and blown out contrast levels. In fact, Condon’s movie needed to have the Merchant-Ivory look applied to it; something along the lines of Tony Pierce-Roberts’ richly saturated visual flair in The Remains of the Day (1993).
Our story is set in 1947, Sherlock Holmes, aged 93, retired and living on a remote Sussex farm, tended to by housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), who lives on the modest estate with her young son, Roger (Milo Parker). Munro is a harsh one; not very tolerant of Holmes’ isolationist bachelor, and even more critical of Roger’s deep and abiding fascination for this recluse who spends most of his time either in his upstairs study, pouring over old case files and committing his meandering thoughts to paper (in absence of his deceased biographer, Dr. Watson) or solitarily tending to his bee husbandry. At every turn, Condon’s movie attempts to debunk the legend of Sherlock Holmes; Holmes seen quietly amused inside a local cinema showing an ‘old movie’ based on his exploits, and later, in flashbacks, all but dismantling prickly ash merchant, Tamiki Umezaki’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) impressions of him by devaluing the deerstalker and hornpipe, trademarks worn and smoked by the movie’s incarnate Holmes.
The first third of Condon’s modest excursion badly waffles between Holmes’ recent past (his trip to Japan) and the present. Somewhere between these counterpoints of reference, Hatcher’s screenplay also plays fast and loose with the particulars of Holmes’ only open case file ‘The Adventures of Dove Grey Glove’ – inserting flashbacks devoted to Holmes’ investigation that neither augment nor advance the central narrative so much as they chronically discombobulate and obfuscate the straight-forwardness of the case itself. It’s this clumsiness in Mr. Holmes’ opening act that remains frustratingly subpar – unworthy of the character or Ian McKellen’s superb portrayal. More richly rewarding is the focus on Holmes’ burgeoning friendship with young Roger; the kind gestures of a mellowed intellectual who, on a more intuitive level, realizes his mind has slowly begun to regress to that of a child. Determined to impart some of his wisdom on this inquisitive lad, who obviously is keen to learn and has a probative mindset that may prove his strength as he matures, Holmes infrequent memory lapses incur the widow Munro’s considerable displeasure. She will not stand for Holmes filling her son’s head with lurid details that make crime-solving appear as a glamorous profession.
At Roger’s ginger prodding, Holmes endeavors to recall the case that caused him to retire from sleuthing altogether. “When you're a detective, and a man comes to see you, it's usually about his wife,” Holmes explains. And so, in flashbacks, we regress some thirty years, meeting a younger, more agile Holmes, still in full control of his acuities and living at 221B Baker’s Street in London. Holmes is introduced to Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), a solicitor desperate to learn why his wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan) has suddenly become distant after suffering two miscarriages. The screenplay plays fast and loose with the most obvious reason; Mrs. Kelmot has taken a lover. Tailing the young wife around town, Holmes discovers the affluent Mrs. Kelmot forging and cashing checks in her husband’s name, reviewing the details of his Last Will and Testament, and, even quietly buying a bottle of poison from the local chemist’s shop. Holmes also learns Ann has been taking music lessons on a glass harmonica, under the auspices of prima donna, Madame Schirmer (Frances de la Tour). Once again, Hatcher’s screenplay cannot resist the urge to misdirect the audience even further down the primrose path, into another transparent scenario; Mrs. Kelmot intends to murder her husband in order to inherit his formidable moneys and property. Gradually, however, Holmes unearths the more tragic inducement for Ann’s secrecies; planning a tombstone engraved with the names of her two miscarried children and her own with the intention to commit suicide as she can no longer sustain or survive her terrific grief over their losses.
Confronting Ann in a garden, Holmes claims firsthand knowledge of her epic loneliness and crippling isolation. His confession is, of course, shallow and meant to make Ann recant her plans for suicide. For the briefest of moments, Holmes’ ruse does the trick; Ann sharing a tearful moment and spilling out the poison she has only just bought. Relieved to have seemingly prevented her suicide, Holmes is entirely unprepared when Ann tenderly pleads for the opportunity to share ‘the burden of their loneliness together’. Herein, Ian McKellen gives us the briefest flash of Rathbone’s incarnation of Sherlock Holmes; this enterprising and scholastic tower of intellectual efficiency, utterly void of any human connection – particularly to the female sex. At Holmes’ insistence she return to her husband for solace and understanding, Ann suddenly realizes she has been played for a fool in her fragile emotional state; Holmes’ only interest in her, to prevent the suicide, but not because he shares in her sadness. Hurrying along, and superficially giving Holmes his satisfaction, Ann steps in front of an oncoming train to her death. Stricken with the knowledge his betrayal has contributed to her demise, Holmes officially retires from sleuthing and retreats into a self-imposed exile on his farm.
It is important to note that, for the purposes of this review I have compartmentalized and consolidated this subplot into a single summation. Within the movie, the scenario is Ginsu-ed into a series of fragmented, almost unrelated and chronologically out of sync timelines; presumably reassembled to make the case more intriguing for the audience when, in fact, it does little more than chronically unhinge and confound the senses; particularly, as these various pieces are fitted into yet another flashback sequence, devoted to Holmes’ most recent trip abroad to Japan in search of the prickly ash Holmes has been led to believe will stave off the onslaught of his advancing memory loss. In this second spate of tidbits, we meet Tamiki Umezaki, a great admirer of the fictional Sherlock Holmes, though somewhat put off by meeting the man in the flesh, whose stature and cynicism fails to live up to the ideal Umezaki has stored up over time.
Umezaki has agreed to take Holmes to the spot where the sacred root grows. But Umezaki’s purpose is two-fold; the latter reason, his sincere hope Holmes can shed some light on what has become of his father, Masuo (Zak Shukor) who abandoned both Tamiki and his mother, Maya (Takako Akashi) while stationed in England during the war. Before Masuo vanished, apparently into thin air, he sent several letters back home, one of them singing the praises of Sherlock Holmes. Disinterested, as time is of the essence to retard his ailing mental decline, Holmes fluffs off Umezaki’s request, rather cruelly suggesting he never met Masuo; also, perhaps Masuo merely and selfishly wanted to start a new life abroad minus the perceived impediments of a wife and child. Umezaki is understandably wounded by these insinuations. Shortly thereafter, Holmes leaves Japan to pursue his treatment at home with the prickly ash. Alas, it illustrates no medicinal properties to delay the progression of his disease; a bitter finding, indeed.
In the present, Mrs. Munro becomes increasingly short-tempered with Holmes’ bouts of forgetfulness; her frustrations boiling over after Holmes becomes dangerously unconscious from an experiment, injecting a solution of prickly ash into his arm. Confined to his bed for some time, Holmes is viewed as a burden by Mrs. Munro, who writes to secure a new post as a chambermaid at a hotel in Portsmouth. But Roger, having gleaned some expert tutelage from the great detective, now views his mother with a modicum of disdain: her simplistic dismissal of Holmes seen as cruel and unfeeling. Moreover, with Holmes’ expertise, Roger has been shown a possible way out of his own present-day working class status. Thus, a riff develops between mother and son. To please Holmes, Roger takes it upon himself to look after the bees. Tragedy strikes when the boy is inadvertently and repeatedly stung – almost to death – his seemingly lifeless and swollen body discovered by Holmes lying unconscious near the house. Rushing Roger to hospital, Mrs. Munro is thwarted from her malicious attempt to torch the apiary. Still, blaming Holmes’ for Roger’s near fatal attack by the swarm, Holmes, instead points out Roger was not stung by the bees, but rather, wasps the boy was trying to drown in order to protect the bees.
As Roger begins to slowly recover from his ordeal, Holmes, perhaps for the very first time fully cognizant of the value of human kindness and the interconnectivity of one’s personal connections with others, bequeaths his Sussex farm to Mrs. Munro and Roger. They will inherit his land and possessions upon his death; an inducement to encourage her to stay, rather than take on yet another menial career of hard labors elsewhere. Mr. Holmes' last act is all about redemption; humanizing this presumably stuffy and clinical academic. Keeping true to this premise, Holmes equally has a change of heart about Dr. Watson’s fictional embellishments of Dove Grey Glove Case. He realizes Watson’s lies were a sort of ‘kindness’ toward Mr. Kelmot – a way to heal his broken heart. In this spirit, Holmes feels compelled to author a letter to Umezaki, lying to him about his late father’s bravery as an honorable man working in service of the British Empire. The truth, that Masuo never intended to return to his family after leaving Japan, is quietly kept from Umezaki; Holmes deducing from his own experiences with the late Ann Kelmot, sometimes the truth shall not and cannot set one free from the burdens of an imperfect past. In the movie’s epilogue, Roger educates his mother on the proper care of Holmes’ bees. Holmes, fast approaching the end of his days, is seen on a hilltop, quietly emulating a tradition he witnessed in Hiroshima: the placement of a ring of stones, representative of the loved ones lost to him over the years, that he, rather whimsically is now looking forward to soon rejoin.
As last act finales go, Mr. Holmes’ is richly rewarding; bringing about the necessary closure, not only for the characters in this film, but seemingly marking a definite period to the Holmesian film franchise begun so very long ago, and, long endured by some truly laughable and badly executed slings and arrows to keep Conan Doyle’s perennially appealing sleuth ever-present and alive in our hearts and minds. If only the rest of the movie had managed something greater than a series of disjointed vignettes, Mr. Holmes might have been a truly fitting epitaph to this legacy. Instead, at just barely under 2 hrs., we have a clumsily assembled, and occasionally lumbering would-be melodrama, draped in the enigma of a crime thriller that, quite simply, fails to engage. The revelations unearthed by Holmes in the flashbacks of the Dove Grey Glove Case are neither startling nor satisfying; merely perfunctory addendums to the aged Holmes’ own realization in act three: a derivation on the ole cliché about ‘no man’ being ‘an island’.
The best thing about Mr. Holmes is undeniably Ian McKellen’s monumental and effective performance as this ailing giant in the world of crime-solving. McKellen infuses his performance with sparks of the classic Sherlock Holmes’ inspired brilliance, but also provides subtler jabs of pleasure, gradually derived by stripping away the mask from this unicorn we only thought we knew until now. It is a fascinating character study when director, Condon and screenwriter, Hatcher allow the careworn thespian something meaningful to say and/or do; also, in pauses from Schliessler’s chop-shop camerawork, long enough to bask in the afterglow of McKellen’s ability to hold our attentions merely as a presence, without any uber-clever embellishments in the cinematography. Alas, too often this aforementioned trio of creatives, toiling behind the scenes, conspires to deprive us of McKellen’s formidable gifts on display. Too many cutaways, departures from the main storyline, maladroitly inserted flashbacks, hacked apart and/or parceled off in snippets, entirely failing to direct the audience into more intriguing past regressions, results in an unevenly paced narrative. Colin Starkey and Sarah Crowden, briefly glimpsed in non-speaking cameos as Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson respectively, are utterly wasted and pointlessly mis-referenced as portholes of the past rather than integral characters in the Holmesian tradition. Fair enough – this story is not about them. But must we interminably remain faithful to the source material - Cullin’s novel - at the expense of sacrificing these hallmarks ensconced in our movie-land folklore.
I have made this point in the past, and see no reason not to resurrect it again herein; namely, that great literature and great movies rarely – if ever – run a parallel course. In the golden era of Hollywood, the creative brain trusts responsible for true cinema art fast came to the collective realization what works in the realms of the imagination, gleaned from the mind while reading a novel, does not necessarily translate well – or, at all – to the literal world of the cinema arts. Movies cannot imagine. They must illustrate, concretely and, if possible, concisely. Like a lot of movies made in the past twenty years, Mr. Holmes takes Cullin’s book too literally; disregarding the notion, movies can ‘improve upon’ a novel or, in fact, provide us with an alternative interpretation, no less richly rewarding – but different – than the book. Alas, our movie-land pop culture is a little less creatively fertile for this oversight. Bottom line: Mr. Holmes is passable entertainment. Without Ian McKellen, the picture would be nothing at all. For completionists of the Holmesian folklore on celluloid, I suppose this latest addition will suffice. Personally, it left me flat and fairly disappointed more with the character and structure of the piece had not been done. At this point, I would have settled for even tried.
Mr. Holmes’ debut on Blu-ray is what one might expect: extolling the virtues of its 2.40:1 digital photography, its hues occasionally reaching a level of sumptuousness, but on the whole, more subdued with a somewhat softly surreal ambience. Shadow detail is wanting: a result of this 1080p transfer or the shortcomings of the Arri Alexa XT with which this movie was shot…who can say? I only know that on my display black levels never went beyond a deep and murky base, everything registering in mid-range tonalities of grey. There is some slight shimmering too, mostly in Holmes’ tweed coat – presumably, the enduring scourge of digital photography. The 5.1 DTS audio is fairly subdued; this being a mostly dialogue-driven drama with few instances to truly show off depth, as well as the clarity of its sound field. Still, roaring train whistles and Carter Burwell’s evocative score are the beneficiaries of some restrained ambience. Good stuff here. Extras are the biggest guffaw: two featurettes (I’m going to label them as ‘commercials’): Mr. Holmes: The Icon and Mr. Holmes: The Story – combined, they total depressingly less than five minutes. Really?!? If you can give us both the character and the plot in under five, I will venture you haven’t much of a movie to begin with! Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)