Written by Wan Tyszkiewicz
If I had to pick one word that describes ‘Mr Holmes’ it would be “charming”. The story, the rhythm, the characters – this film was a sublime experience. I made a conscious decision not to read up on the film beforehand, so I went in to the cinema screening without any expectations.
It’s difficult to gauge exactly how much information written up in a review will be perceived as a “spoiler”. If someone had told me that the film is about Sherlock Holmes (played by Sir Ian McKellen) during his retirement years at the grand old age of 93 and he’s losing his memory, I wouldn’t have rushed to the cinema. It would probably be put on the DVD list at best. But this film deserves the full cinematic experience because there is so much beauty in every scene; from stunning landscapes that take in the Jurassic coast of England, to wonderful period costumes that have immense attention to detail. And ‘Mr Holmes’ has Sir Ian McKellen, one of Britain’s finest character actors.
So here goes with the plot and hoping it doesn’t constitute as a spoiler. The story is set in 1947 and is based on ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’ – a novel by Mitch Cullen. The famous Sherlock Holmes is long retired and living in his country idyl with widowed housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes is now a keen beekeeper and has not solved a crime for more than 30 years. But he has always had misgivings about his partner John Watson’s written version of their last case. Holmes has a burning desire to rewrite the story but his failing memory won’t allow him to recall all the events. Although he consumes regular doses of royal jelly from his bees in an attempt to restore his memory, it fails to make any difference. So he makes one last long journey to Japan in search of a possible cure.
The film uses flashbacks to tell part of the story and shows Holmes in his younger years as the renowned detective, cocksure in his deployment of logic and reason to solve crimes. He is retained by an anxious husband, worried about his wife. After two miscarriages she is deeply distressed about her lost babies. The husband believes that she is secretly seeing a clairvoyant which he has expressly forbidden. He asks Holmes to take on the case, which he does, but Holmes’ lack of empathy and insistence on clinical deduction leads to a tragic outcome.
This is Holmes as we have never seen nor imagined him before. None of Robert Downey Jr’s derring-do or Benedict Cumberbatch’s frenetic intensity. Instead we have a rather camp and muddled sleuth, moving at a snail’s pace and simmering at the lowest possible temperature with no danger of the pot boiling over. A cauldron of smouldering feelings with the lid firmly in place, until an unfortunate event in the story threatens Mr Holmes’ entire homeostasis.
McKellen is outstanding in this role; it’s the second time he has worked with director Bill Condon (‘Gods and Monsters’ 1998) who has an eclectic portfolio of successful film credits. McKellen’s face is agile with expression; huffing, puffing and grunting his way through every scene. Make-up team Dave and Lou Elsey (‘Wolves’, ‘X-Men’, ‘Star Wars’) do a superb treatment on McKellen aging him by 20 years. McKellen then adds a stoop and a shuffling gait and turns into a rather convincing, grumpy old man. The makeup is flawless and Condon utilises close-ups that linger on Holmes’ face throughout the film, emphasising every line etched into his skin and the frailty of this human being.
Laura Linney is almost unrecognisable as the plump Mrs Munro, with her convincing West Country accent, which apparently she worked very hard to perfect. But Milo Parker comes a very close second to McKellen by putting in an incredible performance as the precocious Roger who wants to make something of himself, and refuses to settle for less like his parents. Roger and Holmes develop a close and affectionate relationship that threatens Mrs Munro’s world, as she does not see a future with her elderly employer who is increasingly becoming a burden as he slides towards extinction.
There are plenty of interesting characters and subplots in ‘Mr Holmes’, some more bizarre than others, but I shall let you discover these elements for yourself, for I fear I have said too much already. This isn’t the kind of film that you watch on Christmas Day with all the family, but it’s probably the one that you’ll all enjoy the day after.
Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Sir Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, John Sessions, Frances de la Tour, Frances Barber