Holmes un­der the ham­mer

The game is afoot for the con­sult­ing de­tec­tive one last time in this hand­some, in­ter­est­ing but me­an­der­ing drama, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

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.

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