Seventeen years after Gods And Monsters, an embellished account of the last days of director James Whale, Bill Condon, Ian McKellen and composer Carter Burwell reunite to tell another sensitive story about a retired great contemplating his past. This time, the retiree is Conan Doyle’s fictional creation Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), as imagined through Mitch Cullin’s celebrated 2005 novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind.
Layers of fiction and history stack on top of each other to build Mr Holmes, a film that flits between the 1940s and 1910s as our hero struggles to remember the details of his last, traumatising case, one that prompted his exile to the Sussex countryside.
The film presents Sherlock Holmes as a real person frustrated by the “worthless” fiction and “vulgar” fame that surrounds him. Dr Watson’s literary accounts of famous cases have passed into popular culture, spawning as many “penny dreadful” films as they have misconceptions. This Holmes gruffly disabuses fans of the notion he ever wore a deerstalker or smoked a pipe. Dwelling only in logic, he says that he has “never had much use for imagination”.
Thus is established one of the film’s chief preoccupations, the relationship between truth and the imagination, between fact and fiction. It’s a sophisticated theme rendered with disappointingly little sophistication by Mr Holmes’ script, which is heavy on exposition and leaden symbolism, encumbering the delicate ideas that it wants to let fly.
Much more successful is the film’s depiction of ageing and dementia. Roger Allam’s country doctor instructs the ninety-three year-old Holmes to place a dot on a diary page each time he is unable to recall something. By the end of the film, the little book is spotted like a leopard.
The decline of a mind as great as Sherlock Holmes’ has instant pathos, as do the former detective’s attempts to cure himself with rare tinctures of his own making. Reduced to jogging his memory by pencilling his interlocutors’ names on his inside shirt cuff, we’re reminded that age and frailty comes for us all. Genius is no exception.
For this is no Holmesian romp. You’ll find no poison-dart-blowing dwarfs or men with twisted lips here. Like Gods And Monsters, it’s a sensitive and, perhaps necessarily, bleak film about the final stage of a man’s life. As Holmes poetically diagnoses when his bee hives are threatened by an unknown killer, the film’s true subject is “an outbreak of mortality”.
That subject is carried by a granite-strong performance from Ian McKellen. Aged-up to play the feeble nonagenarian Holmes with a face lined like bark, or aged down to play the spry, elegant sixty-year-old version, McKellen’s performance is exactly what you’d expect it to be: utterly sincere and very moving.
It’s supported by impressive newcomer Milo Parker as the housekeeper’s bright and inquisitive boy, Roger, with whom Holmes strikes up a touching friendship. Laura Linney joins him, deftly camouflaging her natural glamour behind the initial frump, severity and West Country accent of housekeeper Mrs Munro.
Roger and Mrs Munro have their own story, that of an intelligent child fast outgrowing his parochial parent. It’s well told, a domestic family drama to complement the film’s depiction of Holmes and Roger’s isolation-by-difference. Both are a rare species, as rare as the Prickly Ash for which Holmes journeys to post-WWII Japan in the film. What compensation does the intellect provide to lonely people with remarkable minds, Mr Holmes asks? Scant compensation when that remarkable mind begins to fail, is its answer.
Treats for Doyle fans aren’t absent, but largely packaged into a single cinema visit to a cameo-studded Sherlock Holmes matinee. (Look out for Young Sherlock Holmes’ Nicholas Rowe as the on-screen Great Detective). Mycroft and the Diogenes Club also get a look-in, but Mr Holmes is not designed to be a fairground tie-in to canon.
It’s designed to be part mystery, part fictional biography, and part meditation on senescence. It’s difficult not to admire—especially for its performances—but equally tough to ignore its heavy-handedness at times. It never quite escapes the feel of a quality Sunday night television drama, or the sense that its complex themes would have been handled with more sophistication in Cullin’s novel than they are here on screen.
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