WRITTEN REVIEW – Mr. Holmes (2015)

Mr. Holmes
Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher
Starring: Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Laura Linney, Patrick Kennedy & Hattie Morahan
Music: Carter Burwell
Certificate: PG
Release Date: June 19th 2015

The character of Sherlock Holmes has had quite a resurgence in recent years. The 19th Century literary character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has leapt back into the limelight, first with a big-budget period action movie in 2009 with Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, then a hugely successful 2010 UK TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and then a US remake of the aforementioned TV show with Jonny Lee Miller. Dozens upon dozens of actors have played Sherlock Holmes on film and now, thespian Sir Ian McKellen throws his deerstalker into the ring.

He teams up, once again, with Bill Condon after working with him previously in ‘Gods and Monsters‘ and adapting the book “A Slight Trick of the Mind”, we don’t find ourselves with a conventional Sherlock Holmes. At over 90 years old, Ian McKellen’s Holmes is retired and the movie reflects that more methodical pace which may turn off fans of Guy Ritchie’s or Steven Moffat’s adaptations. But it creates a wholly unique Holmes experience and one of the best UK films of 2015 so far.
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In 1947 Sherlock Holmes (McKellen) has been retired for 30 years and lives in self-imposed exile in Sussex tending to bees with housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney) and her son Roger (Parker). Holmes has just returned from Japan after finding Prickly Ash in order to help improve his failing memory as Holmes attempts to remember his final case; the case that forced him into retirement in the first place.

 ‘Mr. Holmes‘ is unique in that it brings us a Holmes unlike anything we’ve seen recently. If your exposure to the icon comes in the form of Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch then brace yourself for a much slower and more methodical take on Holmes as ‘Mr. Holmes‘ centres on a retired Sherlock with very little in the way of actually solving a mystery. On the other hand, those who know Sherlock Holmes primarily from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing will also find a Holmes that doesn’t align up with that portrayal. Yes, the Sherlock Holmes in this movie is a great detective, can decipher almost everything about a person just by observing them and he does indeed retire to keep bees (which is the canonical retirement of Sherlock Holmes in the books) but it’s revealed in this movie that Dr. John Watson’s writings of the pair’s adventures embellished the truth.
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Sherlock Holmes and John Watson do not live at 221B Baker Street, but instead live across the road and the printed address was just to mislead potential tourists, Holmes does not smoke a pipe or wear a deerstalker and the case that forced Sherlock into retirement has an entirely different ending which John Watson wrote in order to cover up the truth. And it’s this truth that Sherlock is determined to find out as his mind slowly withers away as he starts to suffer from a form of Alzheimers and is starting to forget the people around him and lose his analytical abilities.

It’s a strong set-up, but what everyone is really interested in seeing is McKellen’s take on Sherlock Holmes and he definitely does not disappoint. He doesn’t come across nearly as arrogant or self-centred as he does in the books or in recent adaptations (which is understandable as Watson could have embellished the truth) so in that respect McKellen is portraying a Holmes with a wry sense of wit and even the occasional twinkle in his eye. When a man comes into his flat and asks him to find out what his wife is doing behind his back you not only get the sense that Holmes doesn’t just enjoy being the smartest man in the room but he also does genuinely enjoy his detective work.
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It’s a more optimistic outlook on the character that many fans may take umbrage with. However, if they’re upset with this adaptation they literally have hundreds of others to turn to so they shouldn’t get too upset. The character still feels like Sherlock Holmes because of his ability to create a mental profile of someone based on their appearance as well as being a great psychologist. Although Holmes states a few years prior to his retirement John Watson left to get married and he has very little presence in the actual movie. Most of the movie focuses on a Holmes in his 90s in Sussex and McKellen does a terrific job at being able to play a Holmes in his 60s and also being able to play a more feeble and insecure Holmes in his 90s (McKellen was 75 at time of filming ‘Mr. Holmes‘). This is helped by an incredible make-up job from Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey which is very convincing and is helped by McKellen slightly warping his physicality to age himself by nearly 20 years.

Listen, it’s Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes. You get exactly what you’d expect and it’s as awesome as it sounds and McKellen wears a Victorian-era suit like an absolute boss.
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The rest of the cast are capable as well with relative newcomer Milo Parker doing a great job with McKellen and shows a lot of range for a child actor. It’s a very strong performance and it’s courageous to put a newcomer in scenes with an acting juggernaut like McKellen but it works really well. Laura Linney is also good as the exasperated house-keeper and the cast is full of some easter eggs such as Nicholas Rowe playing Sherlock Holmes in a matinee performance (which the “real” Sherlock Holmes actually goes to see) as Rowe played Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985. Phil Davis also plays an Inspector and many might remember Davis as the Taxi Driver in the TV ‘Sherlock‘ episode “A Study In Pink“. While I have no idea if this was a deliberate piece of casting, the casting of John Sessions in a one-scene cameo as Mycroft Holmes (Sessions played a small role in ‘Sherlock: The Great Game‘) supports this line of reasoning.
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The script is very endearing and the plot is a very slow burn with numerous plot-lines being interwoven throughout the 104 minute run-time. At first, the three-pronged narrative can be distracting but once you get a sense of the rhythm of the movie then it should be easy to follow as we go from Sherlock Holmes solving his final case, Sherlock travelling to Japan and Sherlock in Sussex keeping bees and trying to jog his memory. The latter plot-thread is the most endearing one due to the relationship between Holmes and the house-keeper’s son, Roger as well as the sense of personal escalation. Sure, the world isn’t going to end if Holmes doesn’t remember his final case, but time is running out for his mind as he loses more and more memories every day (at one point, he can’t even remember Roger’s name) so the personal stakes feel very real.

As for the case that Holmes is trying to remember…in all honesty I didn’t find it particularly compelling. The case in the context of the movie was one that went so terribly wrong that Sherlock Holmes actually had to retire and went into a self-imposed exile. But the conclusion of the case itself did not justify that end result and the end of the case, while not a happy ending by any stretch of the imagination, does not link up with how Holmes wound up in exile. In fact, Holmes had actually forgotten the ending of the case. If the case was so bad and so traumatic, then how did he forget it? He could have repressed the memory but just when did that happen? At what point did Holmes forget about his final case?
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Now, Paulina Kuch had a very good rebuttle to this on my Facebook page where she said it was about Holmes inability to understand people’s emotions and to read them and it involved his relationship with Watson. And even though Sherlock and John don’t have any screentime together in this adaptation, you still have the books and numerous other adaptations to get that backstory between the two. A very fair and well reasoned point, but I respectfully disagree because this movie demonstrates that John Watson’s writings do not line up with what “actually” happened between the two meaning that the backstory that we’ve been told is not necessarily the one that precedes ‘Mr. Holmes‘. That’s not to discredit Paulina’s very well thought out point and I do agree with her in that is what the movie wanted to get across, but to reach that conclusion I feel that you’ve got to do a few contradictory assumptions.

But despite the third act petering out as well as feeling over-extended with two final “reveals” that feel like they only exist to elongate the film, the first two acts are rather superb with charming characters, great performances and the roots of an interesting case for Holmes to solve, both personally and professionally.

While director Bill Condon has not earned much goodwill recently thanks to the likes of ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1‘, ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2‘ and ‘The Fifth Estate‘, he has leapt back into form as this is a slickly produced film with great period detail (a trademark of a BBC Film production), well directed cast members and some wonderful cinematography of both Japan and Sussex by Tobias A. Schliessler. I love the colours of the Sussex landscape with the blue skies, the white cliff-faces and the green grass. It creates a tranquil tableau and I have a feeling that the Sussex tourist-board may be a bit busier over the next few weeks if ‘Mr. Holmes‘ is commercially successful. Carter Burwell, the criminally underrated composer of ‘Where The Wild Things Are‘, ‘No Country For Old Men‘ and ‘Adaptation‘ does great work here with an appropriate and emotion-filled score with particularly great emphasis on the strings as well as a few playful moments when the game is afoot during Holmes’ investigation in his 60s.
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Mr. Holmes‘ is a charming and thought-provoking period drama that has an interesting approach to the legacy of Sherlock Holmes. While the quality of the narrative is ultimately overshadowed by McKellen’s impeccable (as to be expected) performance it does feel like it stumbles at the finish line with superfluous conclusions and an ending that doesn’t entirely feel earned. But the strong cast, great production design and in particular the costumes and make-up are a constant throughout and ‘Mr. Holmes‘, while not quite the Sherlock Holmes movie people will want to see, it’s still an interesting adaptation that is worth seeing all the same.

I give ‘Mr. Holmes‘ 4 stars out of 5.

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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 3rd Jul 15

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