Holmes under the hammer
The game is afoot for the consulting detective one last time in this handsome, interesting but meandering drama, writes
Milo Parker and Ian McKellen
MR HOLMES Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Phil Davies. PG cert, general release, 103 min There are few angles to Arthur Conan Doyle’s most durable creation. Indeed, more than a few of Sherlock Holmes’s identifying features – an “elementary” quote, that deerstalker hat – actually originated in stage and film adaptations. We have his deductive genius. We have his difficulties with women. We have the violin and the cocaine. But nobody would confuse the creation with anybody so complex as Dorothea Brooke or (to stay in similar territory) Tom Ripley.
It is this very blankness that permits such a fecundity of reinvention. (If the similarly nuance-light James Bond ever escapes the Fleming estate, he may receive similar treatment.) And at no period in history have we had quite so many deconstructions of the master detective.
After two films, Guy Ritchie’s steampunk Holmes is in hiatus. Two TV series ( Elementary and Sherlock) are currently following a younger Holmes around the modern world. Since it was published in 2005, Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind is not any sort of response to those two programmes. But Bill Condon’s smooth, cosy adaption does inevitably seem like something of a complement.
The picture takes us to postwar Suffolk, where an aging Homes (a perusal of His Last Bow would put him in his early 90s) is living grumpily with Mrs Munro (Laura Linney), a caring war widow, and her inquisitive son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes takes care of his bees while tolerating chatter from the boy and pondering the final case that, unsatisfactorily concluded, propelled him into retirement.
The part is an absolute gift for Ian McKellen. This Holmes suffers the expected physical decline, but, for a man who has lived by his intellect, it is the loss in memory that causes most distress.
It is made clear early on that his deductive skills are still in full working order. Presented with a visitor, Mr Holmes can, by examining cuffs, collars and knees, make improbable conclusions about character and circumstance. But the slipperiness of recent experience is causing a once indestructible personality to crumble at the edges.
McKellen is very good at conveying the many minor frustrations of age that combine to create a great mass of distress and dread. Previous deconstructions of Holmes have allowed rare moments of weakness to mildly colour the detective’s character; this Sherlock is forced to concede that no amount of intellectual bravado will repel the demands of mortality.
Linney is touching as a woman who, already widowed by the war, fears that her bright son may soon be lost to her intellectually. This was a common concern for the parents of grammar school children in those years.
At times, the piece does come across like decent Sunday evening telly. The pretty rural setting and tasteful music would be right at home in the slot that has welcomed Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Those shows would, however, require a little more narrative discipline.
Mr Holmes meanders in too many uninteresting directions before coming to a conclusion that fatally betrays its title character. A visit to Hiroshima overloads the middle section. An incident involving a glass armonica (a musical instrument constructed from bowls) reeks of too much research. Worse than all that, Sherlock seems to turn plain stupid (as opposed to forgetful) in the last 15 minutes.
Not to worry. Just as they did on Gods and Monsters (another story of an older genius in retirement), Condon and McKellen work hard at building a character that looks to have had a real life outside the confining frames of cinema and legend. Come to think of it, McKellen is still just about young enough to appear in a straight-up Holmes story. Just a thought.