Thursday, 23 July 2015


Transmission Films

"Fiction is worthless!" decries Sherlock Holmes, the famous (and fictional) sleuth, at one point in Mr. Holmes. What then would he make of a film (directed by Bill Condon) based on a novel (by Mitch Cullin) which imagines the retirement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective?

Now in his ninety-third year, and relocated from his Baker Street London address to a house by the sea where he is tended to by housekeeper, Mrs. Monroe (Laura Linney), and her precocious son, Roger (Milo Parker), Holmes (Ian McKellen), who really needs a carer, is battling time and senility. But he is also battling the past.

In particular, the detective is troubled by his last case which he is struggling to recall; hoping to write an account of it to right two wrongs: the fictional and fanciful accounts of his other cases by long-time partner, Doctor John Watson (whose books Holmes declares as "penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style"); and what actually transpired in that last case more than 30 years ago and which continues to niggle at the back of his mind.

But memory is not Holmes' friend. The sharp and perceptive mind which made him such a formidable detective -- his powers of deduction second to none -- is gradually giving in to time; slipping and fading. In his friendship with Roger, cultivated as Holmes teaches the youngster to tend to his beehives, Holmes is encouraged to continue writing; Roger as keen as his hero to know how the case was resolved. But memories of that final case come fleetingly to him, throughout the day and in his sleep.

Sherlock Holmes has enjoyed a pop culture resurgence in the last several years, with Robert Downey Jnr. bringing him back to the big screen, and both Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) embodying modern-day television incarnations; each actor providing the sleuth with a mixture of arrogance and the autistic. At the very least, we can be thankful that Condon and McKellen have not given us an all-knowing egghead who sits somewhere on the spectrum. This Holmes is fallible, vulnerable. Human.

It is also refreshing to see Ian McKellen in a straight role for a change. For the best part of 20 years the British actor has either appeared on screen as the mutant super villain, Magneto (from the X-Men series), or as Gandalf the Grey, the wise but fair-weather wizard in Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

The last time McKellen did anything this dramatic was in another Condon film, Gods and Monsters (1998), which also scored the actor his first Oscar nomination. A reasonable deduction would suggest that awards aren't in McKellen's future, but his turn as Sherlock Holmes is an impressive one; shifting between the detective still in his prime, and the feeble old man who clings to his greatest possession -- his mind -- for dear life.

Linney is fine, too, in a small role and with a working class English accent, but it's Milo Parker who deserves second billing. The young actor as equally precocious as Roger, a kid with a mind ripe for learning and who wants so much more than his mother (and deceased father) achieved in life.

This trio of performances, the cinematography (Thomas A. Schliessler) and score (Carter Burwell) make Mr. Holmes an enjoyably watchable film, but one more polite than alive. The central mystery which Holmes hopes to recall is not all that intriguing, and a subplot involving Holmes' recent trip to Japan in search of prickly ash -- a plant regarded for its restorative powers -- is more distracting than anything. That said, Mr. Holmes is far from elementary.

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