Friday, November 20, 2015

Movie Review - Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes
Based on the book by Mitch Cullin
Release Date: July 17th, 2015
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hattie Morahan, Roger Allam, Phil Davis, Patrick Kennedy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Frances de la Tour, John Sessions, Francis Barber, and Nicholas Rowe
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Sherlock Holmes is returning to his home in the Sussex Downs after visiting Japan. After the death of his brother Mycroft he realized that his powers of recollection were waning. He couldn't for the life of him remember his last case. The case was thirty-five years ago and involved the wife of a Mr. Kelmot and was the catalyst to his leaving his profession and moving to Sussex. Of course Watson wrote it up, as he did all Holmes's cases, but he changed it, made Holmes the hero and tacked on a happy ending in that infuriating way of his. Before he dies Holmes wants to write down the story as it happened. Truth not fiction. But he can't find the truth. He can't recollect it. Which was the reason for his recent trip to Japan. He had been in correspondence with a Masuo Umezaki who had read Holmes's treatise on the use of Royal Jelly as a memory aid and told Holmes how the jelly of the prickly ash plant that is found only in Japan is supposedly even better. Holmes and Umezaki journey to Hiroshima, where among the devastation wrought by the recent war, they amazingly find a prickly ash plant that Holmes takes with him back to England. During his absence his housekeeper's son Roger snuck into his study and read the preliminaries of Holmes's story about Mrs. Kelmot and wants Holmes to finish the story. As Holmes struggles to recall his reasons for leaving his profession an unlikely friendship develops between him and Roger and the care of Holmes's bees. But can a ninety-three year old man get back his past and change what is left of his future?

To be one of the actors with enough skill to play Sherlock Holmes you enter a rarefied category. Because, for most, you will forever be known for that role, but you will also be harshly judged. Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Lee Miller, and Basil Rathbone are linked inextricably with Holmes. They have become one with Holmes and will never separate fully from this legacy. But there are other actors, those who have made a name for themselves prior to donning the deerstalker as it were; Michael Caine, Robert Downey Jr., and Rupert Everett, like McKellen, were known entities. They all successfully became Holmes to some extent, but have maintained their own identity. It is to this secondary category that McKellen belongs. One wonders at McKellen so easily taking up this signature role. For countless people McKellen is Gandalf from Tolkien's works, and for countless others he is Magneto from the Marvel comics. In other words, McKellen has never shied away from playing iconic roles. But one gets the feeling that he is tired of doing this. And yet... he became Sherlock Holmes. It is my belief that he did this because he is the only actor with the ability to realize this character as he was written here. Of all the actors who have played Holmes, McKellen is a virtuoso, wherein you never see him as himself, he is Holmes. But he doesn't just capture one Holmes, he captures two distinct iterations of the icon at two different stages of his life. He takes the character we have always known, built on it, aged it, and given it back to us in a way that is sure to get him his first Academy Award win.

The more you think on Mr. Holmes the more you realize it isn't just a movie simply about the man who solved unsolvable mysteries. The heart of the film is darker, melancholy without falling into the trap of being morose and unbearably sad. Sherlock Holmes has been a man who relied his entire life on his mind to never fail him. His mind palace, as it were, was inviolable. But as we age, our memory, our ability to recollect starts to fail. This is happening to Holmes. He is unable to remember his last case, the case that defined his life as it has become. Most people balance the life of the mind with emotions and love and heart. Relationships that are more than just business. But what happens when the mind starts to go and you have never had heart? There is no corresponding emotions to bring recollections to the light of day. And this all ties into Holmes's last case. He perfectly understood Mrs. Ann Kelmot. He analyzed her and made her secrets bare. But he lacked empathy. He could see everything but he couldn't see that even if someone is fully aware of their situation that sometimes that isn't enough. Sometimes a heart is permanently broken and the knowledge of this can never put it back together. Holmes failed Mrs. Kelmot and therefore failed himself, leading to his new bucolic life. By going back into his past, by trying to remember this case as he forges his relationship with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her young son Roger, Holmes is given a lesson in empathy. He finally understands not just the mystery of Mrs. Kelmot, but what he has been missing his entire life and that people sometimes need a little compassion, a little fiction to survive.

I find it interesting that over the years an aging Holmes has really captured the imagination of Sherlockians. This idea that Holmes, the ever unchanging pillar of logic, would somehow change in old age. That there is something, some event, that would somehow make him more human, more relatable. The cold analytical man is what countless generations of readers have latched onto, but in works like Chabon's The Final Solution and the inspiration for this movie, A Slight Trick of the Mind, they humanize him. While I really enjoyed this movie there's a part of me that knows it's just a "what if?" This would never be Holmes, this is an idealized hypothesis of what could, what might have happened with a fictional character. But it's an enjoyable idyl. Never to be taken too seriously, but to be enjoyed nonetheless. One wonders what Conan Doyle would think. He puts in a passing reference in one of his last Holmes stories that he is raising bees, and now that's written in stone as the only thing that Holmes may do in his old age. What would Holmes's creator think of this obsession with this one detail? With this need to humanize his legend. Holmes was never human, he came back from the dead after all! And those bees sure have stuck. Thanks to Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins detectives can only raise bees or cultivate roses in their retirement. I personally think this is a bit boring and narrow.

One of the main reasons I was excited to see this film was because of Nicholas Rowe. He is my childhood (and current) crush from playing the starring role in The Young Sherlock Holmes. The fact that he was playing Matinee 'Sherlock' in a movie version of Holmes's last case as presented within the movie made me giddy. The fact is this film is acutely aware of the history of Holmes, not just the literary works, but also all the adaptations, as well as Conan Doyle's life itself, raised it to a special place for fans of Holmes and the meta universe he now resides in. Phil Davis, the killer cabbie of Sherlock makes an ironic appearance as a Police Inspector as well. But these casting choices are just the tip of the iceberg. What really drew me into the story and therefore the mystery was the glass harmonica and it's obvious spiritual connections. The haunting music alone coupled with Mrs. Kelmot's talking to her dead children where enough to convey the spiritualism aspect of the musical instrument, long before Holmes pointed it out. Mesmer himself even played this instrument. Spiritualism was the overriding obsession of Conan Doyle's later years. He lost friends, including Harry Houdini, because of his beliefs. Within the framework of Mr. Holmes it not only adds this meta layer, but it provides an ingenious red herring that gives the film the depth that makes you continually invested, even when it's obvious what the outcome of the case will be.

To bring this review back around to where I started, we are back once more with Ian McKellen. McKellen has reached an age where he doesn't need to work for money anymore, he does what he likes when he likes with who he likes. This can be both a boon and a burden for the audience, he has many fabulous friends who are actors. For example, take his recent foray into television with Vicious, a show clearly made to hang out with Derek Jacobi and Frances de la Tour. This Are You Being Served? throwback is tasteless and camp, in all the wrong ways. France de la Tour makes an odd appearance in Mr. Holmes as the glass harmonica instructor, Madame Schirmer. She once again proves that she can only act so far over the top that she almost derails the film with just a few lines. But the true fault of the film is Laura Linney, who would NEVER have been cast if not for her friendship with McKellen. I have no doubt that she is a nice person and she has always been an amazing advocate for LGBTQ rights for years, hence her friendship with McKellen. But she is just woefully miscast. I will admit that I have never liked her, but I was willing to be open-minded here. And the only saving grace is that she didn't have too many lines. Those lines she did have were in a dialect that appears nowhere on this earth. I think she might have been trying to do Welsh... but why they didn't just cast someone Welsh is down to Ian McKellen. He's a superb actor, and while he might know a lot of superb actors, he sometimes should know when to reign in on the nepotism.  


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