Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 7/17/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 16, 2015
Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is one of the most enduring and all-purpose characters in the history of literature. He can fit any time, for almost any purpose. He has served as an instrument of propaganda for the war effort during World War II. He has been a modern action hero in the Victorian era and an old-fashioned detective in the modern day. He has been a teenager, a recovering drug addict, and a creation of Dr. John Watson's imagination. The best scenes of Mr. Holmes imagine how a 93-year-old and very real Sherlock Holmes would react to his fictional self. He's underwhelmed, to say the least. That's also our reaction to the movie's version of the iconic character.
This Holmes is a bland old chap whose most significant characteristics are defined by what he is not. He is not a vessel for a cold, analytical mind. Instead, he is warm toward and genuinely cares about a young boy, and he's haunted by at least one case that he could not solve—not because of the professional failure but because of the consequences for another person. He is no longer a great or, for that matter, an even adequate detective. His memory is failing rapidly, and he cannot even solve the case of a string of dead honeybees, despite the answer being stated by him on more than one occasion. The mind of this Holmes no longer "rebels at stagnation" but would instead be perfectly content with the routine of retired life.
The allure of the fictional Holmes drives the character and the narrative itself. It's a fascinating notion, to juxtapose our collective understanding of an established character with someone far more ordinary. It's a given here that the Holmes of the unseen Watson's stories and the various legends that arose from those tales is, at least, an exaggeration or, at most, a complete reversal on the real man.
Holmes, played with assurance and (in the character's later years, perhaps too much) bombast by Ian McKellen, informs us that, for the benefit of the public, he used to play the character that Watson presented to the world. He would sport the deerstalker hat of the manuscripts' illustrations and smoke a pipe, even though he thought the hat to be an affectation and preferred cigars. He had to be selective in taking his cases once he became a celebrity, watching—from his actual flat across the street—hordes of tourists line up to see his home at 221B Baker Street. Out of curiosity, he once saw a cinematic adaptation of one of Watson's stories and found the popular perception of him laughable.
The case highlighted in that movie was the one that Holmes has come to regret more than any of his other investigations. He is trying to write his own remembrance of that case, although his deteriorating memory is making that difficult.
In the movie's present day (circa 1947), Holmes lives in the country with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Roger becomes curious about the old man's unfinished manuscript and his beekeeping hobby. To his mother's dismay, Roger and Holmes become friends.
The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (based on Mitch Cullin's novel A Slight Trick of the Mind) offers two parallel stories of the past. In the first, Holmes travels to Japan to meet with a man (Hiroyuki Sanada) who promises a natural miracle cure for Holmes' medical condition, but since this is a story involving the famous detective, appearances are not necessarily what they seem. In the second and more important series of flashbacks, Holmes recalls that momentous failure of a case, involving a worried husband (Patrick Kennedy) who is convinced that his depressed wife (Hattie Morahan) has come under the hypnotic influence of her glass harmonica teacher (Frances de la Tour).
The point of all of these intertwined stories is that, while Holmes may understand the concerns of people who are not himself, he does not have the capacity to take that comprehension to the next step of empathy or even sympathy. The results are, to varying degrees, tragic for those who are under the impression that Holmes could extend some sliver of emotional support.
This sort of postmodern analysis is nothing new for a critical study of this character, although it is consistently engaging in the way the "real" Holmes must contend with his fictional counterpart. All three stories are superficially structured as Sherlockian mysteries, but they do not possess nearly the same level of intrigue that we expect. They have their moments (A visit to Hiroshima is disquieting), although the anticlimactic resolution of the tale of the melancholy wife has a much greater impact than the almost absurd business involving the bees.
In theory, these two solutions should build off each other, but something is absent from the elder "real" Holmes. It's not just the qualities that have become part of the public conscious since the character entered into it over a century ago. Mr. Holmes evokes the lore of the character while twisting the expectations we have of it, but that concept serves no significant purpose beyond the cleverness of the idea. The ultimate answer for Holmes is that fiction can be more appealing than truth, and that turns out to be the case here, too.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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