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Seventeen years after the movie that put him on the directing map and won him a screenwriting Oscar, Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon is reunited with that film’s redoubtable star, Ian McKellen, in a pleasing variation on shared themes of aging and mortality. The 1998 bio-drama of James Whale, the cinematic father of Frankenstein, dealt with an elderly man reconciling with the shadows of desire and creativity near the end of his life. Mr. Holmes centers on another sacred monster deep into his twilight, the fictional sleuth of Baker Street, as he wrestles with the retreat of his most precious gift, his mental faculties.
This is a ruminative film of minor-key rewards, driven by an impeccably nuanced performance from McKellen as a solitary 93-year-old man enfeebled by age, yet still canny and even compassionate in ways that surprise and comfort him. Its emotional swell creeps up with a subtlety and grace that will make this Miramax/Roadside Attractions release appeal especially to older audiences.
The film represents an agreeably old-fashioned alternative to all the modernized reinventions of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s venerable detective in recent years. Those include the television updates Sherlock and Elementary, with their contemporary attitudes, humor and gadgetry, and the overblown action-comedy film franchise, with its aggressive cartoon gloss on steampunk style.
Adapted from American writer Mitch Cullin‘s 2005 novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, Jeffrey Hatcher‘s screenplay finds Holmes returning in 1947 from Japan to the stone farmhouse where he lives in Dover on the southeast coast of England. He is cared for with more duty than affection by Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), an unassuming war widow whose true devotion is to her clever 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). As the boy develops a bond with Holmes, helping to tend his apiary and demonstrating his own powers of deduction, the retired detective expresses his approval to Mrs. Munro with a typically blunt double-edge: “Exceptional children are often the product of unremarkable parents.”
Since the death of Watson, who wrote the celebrated accounts of Holmes’ cases and was responsible for such fictional embellishments as the deerstalker hat and pipe, the detective has returned to his notes for the case that caused him to withdraw from the profession while in his 60s.
In extended flashbacks, we see Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) come to Holmes about his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan), afflicted by “dangerous melancholy” since the loss of two children during pregnancy. To distract from her sorrows, Ann has been taking lessons on the glass harmonica, an instrument once associated with the dark arts and thought to be used to contact the dead. But Thomas believes his wife has come under potentially harmful influences from her music teacher, the eccentric Madame Schirmer (Frances de la Tour, adopting a campy Germanic accent).
Anxious to piece together troubling shards of information from his failing memory, Holmes traveled to Japan to meet a man with whom he had been corresponding, Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who convinced him of the properties of a substance known as “prickly ash” to help ward off dementia. That they find what they are looking for in the memorial wasteland of Hiroshima adds to the film’s delicate exploration of the porous walls between life and death, even if the Japanese mysteries of the story are less satisfyingly developed.
Hatcher’s screenplay is sharpest in examining how Holmes and the fatherless Roger nourish one another in ways that initially exclude the plainspoken, practical and less intuitive Mrs. Munro, before eventually softening her as tragedy is narrowly avoided.
The detective’s reverence for fact and dismissal of fiction as a frivolous business get revisited, both during a matinee of a Sherlock Holmes movie, in which he rolls his eyes at liberties taken onscreen, and later as he faces the limits of the truth in sensitive situations. And while the solving of the Kelmot case lacks the snap-shut precision of the best Doyle mysteries, the sorrows it reawakens as the outcome is pieced together ripple affectingly through the film’s concluding scenes. There’s much talk of the stings of bees and wasps, but this is a story of predominantly gentle conflicts.
Handsomely shot by Tobias Schliessler in picturesque East Sussex locations, the film is elegant without being stiff. (Japanese scenes appear to have been studio-shot, to no detriment.) Period costume and production design are sharp, particularly the principal set, with the homey rusticity of the cottage standing in contrast to the life of the mind and of science represented in Holmes’ private study. Carter Burwell‘s pretty, pensive orchestral score enhances the leisurely storytelling and fluid temporal shifts between 1947 and three decades earlier.
Mrs. Munro is an undemanding role for Linney, who previously worked with Condon on Kinsey and The Fifth Estate, but her natural intelligence adds depth to the unapologetically unworldly housekeeper. Young newcomer Parker is alert and appealing, particularly in his lively exchanges with McKellen. Theater actress Morahan (who turned heads on both sides of the Atlantic as Nora in A Doll’s House) has a compelling haunted quality as Ann, and the always-reliable Roger Allam brings warmth to his scenes as Holmes’ concerned medic. Obsessive aficionados will note the appearance as a local Dover detective of Phil Davies, who was featured in the debut Sherlock episode, A Study in Pink.
But the film belongs unequivocally to McKellen, who, in his still-spry mid-70s, shifts with ease between playing a man some 15 years younger than himself and the same character at a far more advanced age. It’s a wily performance full of understated wit and subdued irascibility, devoid of sentimentality and yet quietly moving as Holmes gazes ahead to the end of his eventful life with dignity and acceptance.
Production companies: Archer Gray, See-Saw Films, AI Films, BBC Films
Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Nicholas Rowe, Roger Allam, Phil Davies, Frances de la Tour
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind,’ by Mitch Cullin
Producers: Anne Carey, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Aviv Giladi, Len Blavatnik, Amy Nauiokas, Zanne Devine, Vince Holden
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Martin Childs
Costume designer: Keith Madden
Music: Carter Burwell
Editor: Virginia Katz
Casting: Lucy Bevan
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment
No rating, 103 minutes.
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