Movie Review: Mr. Holmes (2015)
by Alan F. Zundel
Reflective and intricately constructed, “Mr. Holmes” is an engaging meditation on the need to come to terms with oneself before dying. Presented as a coda to the career of Sherlock Holmes, probably the most famous detective in Western literature, it gives added depth to a character of perennial fascination. Of course it also involves a mystery.
The movie begins with an elderly Holmes (Ian McKellan) returning to his countryside home from a trip to Japan. His housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) finds Holmes irritating and intimidating when he is around, but her son, Roger (Milo Parker), a bright boy of about ten, is curious about Holmes and his former career.
We see much of the Holmes we are used to, an eminently logical man with a keen observation of details, only now his famous intellect is wounded by age and time. It turns out that he travelled to Japan in quest of a rare plant reputed to aid the memory. His memory is failing him, and he must resort to tricks such as writing on his shirt cuff to remember people’s names.
Holmes has not completely lost his old powers, however. Upon his return he deduces that Roger has snuck into his study while he was gone. Roger confesses that he went in and read Holmes’ unfinished account of the last case he worked on, the case that led to his retirement. The account is unfinished because Holmes is having trouble remembering what happened, but through Roger’s prodding the story begins to come back to him a little at a time.
That story, one of three story lines in the movie, involves a man who came to Holmes about the mysterious behaviors of his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan). She is in grief over two miscarriages and has come under the sway of a shady woman who teaches the glass armonica, a musical instrument thought to facilitate contact with the dead. (Seeing and hearing this unusual instrument, albeit briefly, was almost worth the cost of the ticket by itself.)
The movie is based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” and its origins as a novel sometimes peek through. The director wants to cram in too much story for its running time, risking a loss of focus. It generally maintains a forward momentum, but may have been better off deleting the third story line, one about a Japanese man who harbors a secret.
This would have allowed more attention to the story of Ann’s case, which is pivotal to Holmes’ late-in-life process of self-insight. Morahan gives a lovely performance as a beautiful but hauntingly sad woman and deserved more screen time to develop it.
But the central thread is the “current day” story (set just after World War II) of Holmes in his twilight years. His relationships with Roger and his mother are complicated and illuminating, and provide a final act which is genuinely touching.
Ian McKellan is perfect as a much more human Holmes, a nice portrait of a man overshadowed by myth. The stories written by his former friend Dr. Watson have made Holmes famous, but he chafes at the expectations people place upon him. His logic and wry humor are no defense against the pangs of emotion. We see his frustration with his declining mind, his regret for a lost opportunity of love, and the loneliness hidden behind the pride in his intellect.
The rest of the cast is superior as well. Laura Linney is wonderful as usual as an insecure working class woman, and Milo Parker upholds his end of the central relationship between Holmes and Roger. Morahan, as noted above, was also a standout.
Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher juggle the various stories well enough, although at times seem to strain for a sense of action by cutting between stories frequently. The story did seem slow at times but never was boring.
This was the kind of slowness you see in a very old person, who moves with the deliberate speed of someone who has finally gained some perspective on what is important in life. You cannot help but to be fascinated as you watch such as person, knowing that someday you will be slowing down as well.