Mr. Holmes

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 17, 2015
Ian McKellen stars in 'Mister Holmes'
Ian McKellen stars in 'Mister Holmes'  (Source:Roadside Attractions)

Sherlock Homes has had a heyday of late. On television, the great detective has been updated to the 21st century, both as a Londoner (in the British series "Sherlock," starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson) and an Englishman living in New York (in the CBS series "Elementary," where Jonny Lee Miller plays Holmes and Lucy Liu a female version of Watson). In the movie houses, Robert Downey, Jr. played Holmes in a pair of action-adventure confections, with Jude Law at his side as Watson.

Both "Sherlock" and "Elementary" have attained the status of hits; the Downey films seem to have ground to a halt, what with "Iron Man" and "Avengers" movies occupying Downey's time these days. What is there left to do with the character?

How about showing Holmes near the end of his life, with his incandescent intellect in decline? Director Bill Condon takes the helm for the film version of the novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind" by Mitch Cullen. The setting is much where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left Homes: Living on a remote farm and amusing himself as a beekeeper. Holmes (Ian McKellen) is now 93 years old, and relies on the aid of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney, donning a brogue for the part) and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker).

The film veers away from colorful characters and extravagant plotting. It's almost a kitchen sink drama, with the mysteries of the day revolving around Holmes' bee colonies (what's killing the bees? This is the 1940s, so it's not the modern problem of bee colony collapse) and the problem of how Holmes intends to reverse his worsening decline in mental function. (A trip to Japan secures him a supply of a rare plant called the Pricky Ash, which he combines with royal jelly from his hives.)

But there's another mystery troubling Holmes: He can't recall the details, because the event took place 35 years earlier, just before he left London and went into retirement. But he knows there was a case involving a man's wife, and he knows something went horribly wrong -- and he, himself, was to blame...

The woman in question is Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), and she resembles Irene Adler, the only woman in Doyle's fiction to equal Holmes. The loutish Mr. Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) thinks his wife is descending into madness -- and worse, she's defying his authority over her -- but Holmes realizes she's not only sane; the things she's doing are directed at a quite understandable goal. What he fails to realize is just what that goal entails -- a failure not of his intellect, but rather of his emotional intelligence. The heart remains an impenetrable mystery to Holmes, whose own loneliness remains a problem insoluble to him.

Ian McKellen is always a delight to behold on the screen (even, it must be said, in the dreadful TV Britcom "Vicious," where he stars opposite Derek Jacoby), and he does a fine job here bringing dignity and poignancy to the aged Holmes, as well as summoning the vitality and vigor he needs to sell the 35-years-younger version of the character seen in the flashbacks. Laura Linney has a few nice moments -- not enough, really, but she does well with what she's given -- and Parker is a find: The young actor holds his own opposite McKellen and creates a portrait of a smart boy who is cursed with the knowledge of his own unfairly limited opportunities.

The films works well enough as a drama, in large part because it downplays the mythology of Sherlock Holmes and approaches the character as a real person struggling to shed the outlandish image with which he's been burdened by fictionalized accounts of the cases he's solved. (The movie never mentions Moriarty, which is too bad; what would a real-world, humanized version of the super-baddie be like?) But as a mystery or an adventure, "Mr. Holmes" is bound to disappoint. After all, moviegoers are going to want to discover a superman of will and ratiocination; "Mr. Holmes" deliberately gives us the frail, flesh-and-blood human being.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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