‘Mr. Holmes’: The Game Is Afoot

Bill Condon is a guy with decidedly bifurcated output. There’s the schlocky Hollywood stuff he’s directed (a couple of the Twilight films and a bunch of horror TV shows), but there’s also his more interesting films: Dreamgirls, Kinsey, The Fifth Estate, and Gods and Monsters.

Condon is also a script writer, having written the three of the four just mentioned as well as the screenplay for Chicago. He’s an Academy Award nominee for that, but won the Oscar for adapting Gods and Monsters—a film that starred Ian McKellen. And now Condon, as director, and McKellen team up again for Mr. Holmes … and the result is most definitely not Hollywood schlock.

Intriguing Character Studies

Mr. Holmes displays Conron’s penchant for examining larger-than-life characters: Dreamgirls is a musical based on Berry Gordy and Diana Ross & The Supremes; Kinsey is about the sexologist; The Fifth Estate covers Julian Assange and WikiLeaks; and Gods and Monsters looks at the last days of legendary film director James Whale. A bookend of sorts to Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes imagines the last days of the legendary, if fictional, Sherlock Holmes.

The film is based on the Mitch Cullin book A Slight Trick of the Mind and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. We meet the 93-year-old Holmes living in a tiny village of Sussex; his only companions are the bees he keeps in the back yard and the dour widowed housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her young son Roger.

At first it all seems very picturesque with lovely shots of the lovely sea and countryside, and the vibe is very BBC costume drama, which is fine with me; there are few things I like better than watching pretty people in pretty clothes on pretty furniture saying pretty things.

But soon the tone of Mr. Holmes darkens considerably. We’re quickly made to understand that his health is failing and his memory is bad and getting worse. An awareness of his own end has spurred Holmes to begin writing down the true story of the last case he worked on some 35 years ago. The problem, however, is that he can’t clearly remember it. He knows there was a grief-stricken wife, an angry husband, and a mysterious foreign woman, but it’s vague and the facts about the case come to him haltingly and sometimes falsely.

Now comes the weird part. Try to forget that this movie is about Sherlock Holmes. It will be difficult, I know, because McKellen is playing Holmes and the “plot” is about him trying to solve a mystery. But Mr. Holmes isn’t really about plot; it’s an intensely textured character study. When I tried to gauge reaction to the film at various online sites, some folks were debating who was the best Holmes (McKellen, Cumberbatch, Downey, Brett … even Rathbone), and several were hopping mad that McKellen wasn’t running around London finding clues, questioning shady characters, and propounding improbable solutions.

You couldn’t pick a more inappropriate lens through which to view this film. It helps to think about Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffin – this was what he called the device he used in his films to start the story’s forward motion … and then abandon once the movie got under way. Think of the stolen money in Psycho, the secret tune in The Lady Vanishes, or the microfilm in North by Northwest, all classic MacGuffins. In a funny way, Sherlock Holmes himself is the MacGuffin of Mr. Holmes; he starts us on our journey, but if you focus on him, you’ll miss the movie.

And that would be an utter shame because Mr. Holmes is a beautiful film; intriguing, deeply moving, fiercely intelligent, and sure to haunt you long after you see it.

Solving the Mystery of Oneself

Instead of looking at McKellen as Holmes, think of him merely as a man who has spent his life living inside his head—no friends (except Watson), no pursuits other than the acquisition of knowledge, and for all his genius, unable to see humans as anything other than a collection of characteristics. And now at the very end of his life, he’s forced to confront the biting, bitter truth about himself that he’s spent most of life evading.

There’s probably not an actor on this planet who could chart this evolution better than McKellen. This is a performance about an enormous emotional journey described in miniature and calibrated with exquisite skill and understanding. I’ve had the misfortune in my life of seeing a lot of live theater and watching a lot of shameless hams at work … and when I think about how a lesser actor might have chewed up every bit of the available scenery given the chance to play a stricken 93-year-old man, my toes curl. But McKellen’s work here is not merely seamless, it’s almost invisible.

He’s joined by an outstanding cast woven together into one uniform playing style by Condon. At the top of the list is Laura Linney (the female lead in Condon’s Kinsey) as Mrs. Munro; she turns in a fearless performance here, completely uninterested in making the audience love her and refusing to exploit any of the opportunities for extravagant playing. In a way, she and McKellen engage in a contest to see who can out underplay the other—you rarely see performances this unadorned in film. Joining them is Milo Parker as her son, a character who takes on an increasingly larger role in the film. It’s truly astonishing to watch this 12-year-old kid more than hold his own in the long scenes featuring just him and McKellen. Hattie Morahan and Hiroyuki Sanada are among the other stand outs.

Mr. Holmes isn’t a perfect film: Three time periods unfold simultaneously, and Condon hasn’t quite joined them into a solid narrative whole. There’s a subplot set in Japan, which feels extraneous to the action; when it’s purpose is revealed, it seems like a stretch. And a few of the incidences from the novel might have been better left out of the screenplay.

But Mr. Holmes is a tremendously rewarding movie directed by a man who seems drunk on the possibilities of movies. In a time when most films are really just live-action cartoons, Mr. Holmes is a uniquely cinematic experience. There’s a funny bit when Holmes goes to see a movie version of one of his cases, and here Condon has a ball parodying those quickie 1930’s Holmes B-films. The even funnier inside joke is that the actor playing the actor playing Sherlock in the movie is Nicholas Rowe, who 30 years ago played the lead in the Steven Spielberg-produced Young Sherlock Holmes.

And speaking of a meta-movie moment—When I mentioned Hitchcock above it reminded me of one of the most curious elements of the film. Condon goes out of his way to purposefully, um, borrow moments from Hitchcock’s films. There’s a deliberate recreation of a very famous shot from Suspicion, a surprisingly blatant reference to a character in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and a sequence of a woman being followed that strongly evokes a similar scene in Vertigo. It’s never made clear why … and perhaps it’s just a MacGuffin. I’ll probably spot even more when I see it again, which I certainly will be doing. And I urge you to do the same.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.