MR. HOLMES (2015)
Directed by Bill Condon
BBC Films, 104 minutes, PG-13
* * ½
It took me a while to view Mr. Holmes because I'm among those who think that Sherlock has been done and redone so often there's nothing left to say. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation is said to be the most portrayed fictional character of all time. Holmes has appeared in comic strips, video games, manga, offbeat comedies, stage, radio shows, screen, and television. There has been a Greek version of Sherlock and, more recently (speaking of overdone!) a zombie Holmes.
Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 57 short stories between 1887 and 1927, with a ten-year break (1893-1903) in which Holmes allegedly died alongside his arch-enemy, Moriarty, at Reichenbach Falls. Blame the hiatus; in 1889, Connecticut actor William Gillette honed an act that gave us most of what became Basil Rathbone's shtick (pipe, deerstalker hat, cape, cocaine use, gruffness). Holmes knock-off novels appeared, the first penned by J. M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame! This is to say that Holmes was re-imagined even before his creator resurrected him in 1903 in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
Excuse the diversion, but the Sherlock back-story is more interesting than Mr. Holmes the film–a much better idea than movie. In the film, it's 1947 and Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned from Japan, where he called upon Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) to procure some prickly ash, whose boiled sap was believed to improve memory. Holmes desperately needs help on that score, as he is 93-years-old and suffering from memory loss bordering on dementia. Nice premise—imagine the world's keenest, most rational mind being unable to recall basics, let alone nuanced detail. With prickly ash secured–from the charred ruins of Hiroshima–Holmes goes back to Sussex, where he has spent the past 30 years tending bees in his retirement. The film script is adopted from Mitch Cullin's novel, A Slight Trick of Mind, but Conan Doyle was the source for this detail; he too had Holmes collecting honey in Sussex.
Homes tends to his bees and Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a World War II widow tends to his cottage in a role that's essentially a countrified version of Baker Street's Mrs. Hudson. The twist is that the semi-literate Munro has a whip-smart young son, Roger, who is more attracted to what's left of Holmes' once-sharp mind than to his mother's forever-dull one. You could probably predict where this is heading, and you'd be right. Among the many problems of Mr. Holmes is the utter conservatism of the plot. It spins off another common trope: that Sherlock Holmes and his cases, as publicly perceived, were largely the product of Dr. Watson's literary license. Ninety-three-year-old Holmes isn't the man in the books, though he was a very clever detective who now has unfinished business: remembering what it was about his final case that made him put down his magnifying glass and set up an apiary.
Sherlock the detective would have spotted this logical inconsistency in a New York minute. Surely he knew the answer to this mystery the moment he retired, and if he truly wanted to expiate guilt, he wouldn't have waited until he was 93! Instead we get flashback sequences as recovered memory that takes us back to the Edwardian age and a muffed attempt to resolve the case of why Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) is being deceived by his wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan). It is stitched, with rather large clumsy sewing, to a mystery of why Holmes' bees are dying, his attempt to recover his memory, and young Roger's assistance in helping him do so. Add the last detail to the discard pile of overworked tropes: precocious young lad helps crotchety old man rediscover joy.
Any production with McKellen and/or Linney is probably worth watching, but let's just say you're more likely to think of Gandalf in tweed than Sherlock Holmes in McKellen's case. Two things we know from Conan Doyle's stories–and brilliantly captured in portrayals by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett (the nonpareil Holmes)–is that Sherlock was not a nice person, and that the misfortunes of others never induced sentimentality. Its simply too much to ask for viewers to see Holmes as a secularized version of a tortured ex-seminarian. McKellen's aged Holmes rings as false as another detail: on screen it was never cloudy or rainy in Sussex, a region that features one, the other, or both roughly two days out of three. Bah! Mr. Holmes is a sunny movie about a character whose character was defined by tempestuousness. I wasn't moved to reconsider Holmes, nor have I budged from the view that it's time to stop trying.