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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Mr. Holmes movie review: the case of the missing myth

Mr Holmes yellow light

It looks lovely and Ian McKellen is amazing, of course, but it’s not very Holmesian. I suspect Holmes himself would snort in derision at its sentimentality.
I’m “biast” (pro): big fan of Sherlock Holmes and Ian McKellen

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I love Sherlock Holmes in all his many incarnations, and when I heard that director Bill Condon was making a movie about an elderly Holmes played by Ian McKellan, I cheered. The two had previously collaborated on the wonderful Gods and Monsters — about the classic Frankenstein filmmaker James Whale in his later years — so this new film was bound to be great, wasn’t it? I was a tad sorry to learn that Mr. Holmes, though based on a novel, was not based on the fabulous Mary Russell series written by Laurie King [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes U.K.], in which an elderly Holmes takes on a very young detective apprentice who later becomes his wife, although probably those books deserve a languid multi-episode television production. Or even Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes U.K.], which might be the best Conan Doyle pastiche ever, except it touches on subject matter that a Victorian author never could have (I’ll leave you to find out what that is) (oh, but Silk is about a Holmes in his prime, so never mind). I haven’t read Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, the basis for Mr. Holmes. But that wasn’t a problem.

So what’s my problem with Mr. Holmes? It’s this: It’s simply not very Holmesian. McKellen (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, X-Men: Days of Future Past) is as lovely as he always is and a great pleasure to watch as a man in his 90s reflecting back on his life and his failings with regret, grief, guilt, and loneliness… but if that doesn’t sound in the least bit like anything Sherlock Holmes would do, bingo. These are rather sentimental endeavors, and Holmes would have no interest in them. Oh, Mr. Holmes — the script is by Jeffrey Hatcher (The Duchess, Casanova) — may think it has a way to explain why this Holmes isn’t very much like the Holmes we know: Watson “embellished” things in his stories, McKellan’s Holmes explains whenever he can to people who expect him to wear a deerstalker or smoke a pipe or do “the thing” (eg, “You arrived on the 8:43 train at Paddington after a breakfast of toast and marmalade and a pot of tea steeped for precisely six minutes.”). But that’s a self-defeating explanation. We like that Holmes. We checked in here for a chance to spend time with that Holmes. The general wonderfulness of McKellen aside, the “real” man behind the myth isn’t as fascinating as that Holmes, and his old-man remorse isn’t terribly different from many similar stories we’ve seen about old men who aren’t Holmes.

The plot is driven by Holmes’ frustrations with the embellishments of Watson (who isn’t a character here): now, in 1947, he wants to write down his own version of his final case, 35 years earlier, but he’s losing his memory and can’t quite recall all the details, or why it ended so terribly that he quit the business. Flashbacks to that case — instigated by a man (Patrick Kennedy: Me and Orson Welles, Atonement) who asks Holmes to investigate his wife (Hattie Morahan: Summer in February, The Bank Job) because she has been acting very strangely — are intertwined with a trip Holmes takes to Japan to collect a medicinal plant that may help boost his memory, and also to visit with Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada: 47 Ronin, The Railway Man), who insists that Holmes knew his father and might be able to explain a mystery of his father’s behavior. A side trip with Umezaki to Hiroshima — yes, in 1947 — is touchingly eerie and moving, but the film isn’t much concerned with Holmes in the “modern” world; he mostly keeps himself to himself in his home in the quiet Sussex countryside, where he tends to his bees and worries his housekeeper, war widow Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney: The Fifth Estate, Hyde Park on Hudson), with his forgetfulness and frailness. The very best bits of the movie come in Holmes’ interactions with Mrs. Munro’s young son, Roger (Milo Parker: Robot Overlords), perhaps because they evince a boisterous boy’s lack of sentimentality and unabashed curiosity about the old man.

Condon has made a film that looks absolutely gorgeous, all buzzing bees on summer days and (in those flashbacks) the simple elegance of Edwardian London. But while how that final case eventually resolves itself is perhaps meant to indicate why Holmes has — relatively speaking, for him — turning into a sad old coot, I just can’t buy it. I suspect Holmes himself would snort in derision at it.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Mr. Holmes for its representation of girls and women.

yellow light 3 stars

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Mr. Holmes (2015)
US/Can release: Jul 17 2015
UK/Ire release: Jun 19 2015

MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking
BBFC: rated PG (infrequent upsetting scenes)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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  • Jan_Willem

    I saw this on Monday night and similarly thought it was lovely but rather tame, a bit like a leisurely TV movie, to be honest. I didn’t quite catch the resolution of the Japanese father-and-son story either. Maybe I’d dozed off a little. Still, very pleasant to watch Sir Ian play Sherlock at two distinct ages. And that young boy with the determined look, Milo Parker, has plenty screen presence, a real find.

  • LaSargenta

    Loverman and I saw this last Saturday (when we discovered we had got the day wrong when Dog Day Afternoon was playing at the Film Forum…yup, these were the two top flicks on our list) and we both liked it. I generally agree with the review, but, funnily enough, what we were talking about the most when we left wasn’t the plot (which was pretty thin) but the nature of living as a constructed character and the importance of creating fiction to heal someone.


    Watson was trying to heal Holmes with the story. Holmes wished he had healed Anne with a story. Holmes tried to heal Mr. Umazaki with a story and he himself was healed with a truth about the importance of fictions.

    Actually, this movie made me think of some of the aspects of cognitive therapy.

    Which, I’m sure, was not the intention of the writers.

    [Also, honestly, it is always such a deep pleasure watching Ian McKellan at work — a fact I have been acutely aware of ever since stumbling on his monologue Acting Shakespeare waaaaay back in the dark ages: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0269355/?ref_=nm_flmg_slf_171 when I wouldn’t have previously known who he was if he had come up and hit me with a stick.]

  • Yeah, that kid is going places.

  • Interesting point about healing. It did not occur to me at all.

  • LaSargenta

    The story felt like things had been butchered. I haven’t read the novel this is based on, either. But, the theme of the movie felt to me more like healing rather than solving. He’s also trying to heal his faulty memory. But the “mystery” kept intruding. I think there is a much better, humane story hiding inside this.

  • You may be right. I see what you mean about the healing, but I never *felt* that. And that’s a pretty necessary thing for a theme. :-)

  • RogerBW

    I’ve not heard anything about the Mary Russell books being optioned. Faintly surprising, really.

    This seems like a bit of a bait and switch: lure the viewer in with “Holmes”, then say “but really he’s like this“. There have been films that did that sort of thing before (Unforgiven is the first one that comes to mind); I wonder whether the difference in the better ones is that they offered a compelling character to replace the one people were expecting.

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