Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen’s take on the popular detective (movie review)

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Those of you looking for a spine-tingling murder mystery story with your favorite British detective on the case best look elsewhere. There’ve been so many takes on Sherlock Holmes and actors who’ve played the astute investigator that you might think you’ve seen it all, but Mr. Holmes, directed by Bill Condon from a script by Jeffrey Hatcher, provides a unique, albeit frustrating take on not only the legend that is Sherlock but the mystery genre as well.

Based on the novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin, Mr. Holmes deals more with the character behind the investigations than the investigations themselves. It’s a more personal tale about perception and regret that digs deeper into the mind of the brilliant man and paints him as more of an emotional human being than a pure logician.

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It’s fitting that a legendary actor plays the legendary character in Mr. Holmes. Ian McKellen tackles the role this time around and imbues it with an air of sophistication and grace. For the majority of the film he’s a 93-year-old Holmes, lurching around his beautiful remote Sussex farmhouse near the ocean, hunched over, face covered in liver spots and a look of confusion, and, tragically, suffering from memory loss. He also takes care of his bees, an aspect of the movie that takes up a disproportionate amount of focus. From time to time, the film takes us back some 30 years to a time when Holmes was a little more confident, capable and healthy. McKellen adds just enough charm to accompany his smirk and hop in his step at this stage of his life. It’s a fantastic performance save for some minor overacting as the older Holmes; he lays it on thick sometimes when it comes to the feeble qualities of older Holmes.

Making us empathize with this character is not one of McKellen’s weaknesses. We’re introduced to a defeated Sherlock Holmes, one who’s dealing with the regret of unfinished business. It’s 1947 and Holmes lives in the farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (an always reliable Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (a remarkable newcomer Milo Parker). He’s torn over how his career ended and his ex-partner Watson’s account of his last case, but he can’t seem to remember the details of the case and why exactly he retired. As we find out more and more about his past and his current predicament, thanks in part to the prodding of Roger and their charming relationship that develops, we come to really empathize with this old man.

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This is no thanks to the awkward structure of the film. Most of the story takes place in 1947, but there are those flashbacks to a time 30 years prior showing Sherlock Holmes in his last case, helping a man named Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) learn more about his wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan), and her odd behavior following two miscarriages. This flashback provides a visual account of the case in question, helps add to the emotional payoff in the end and even provides some obligatory puzzle solving by Holmes, though in a somewhat inorganic sequence that seems added primarily to please fans of the series. Having this flashback is effective, but the narrative becomes too cluttered with the addition of a second flashback that takes place only days before the present storyline when Holmes visited Japan in search of the prickly ash plant in hopes it would improve his memory. There he meets an admirer named Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) who he helps with a family issue using wisdom learned throughout the film. It works in a way, but the three timelines make it difficult to follow the details of the story and hinder the pacing of the film that trudges along like an elderly Holmes at times.

Thankfully, the performances make up for the film’s narrative clutter. The film has two experienced and accomplished thespians, but it’s Milo Parker who’s the most surprising talent on screen. With only one previous credit to his name, the young actor is still a sensation. He’s not only believable and sympathetic but has the charisma of some of Hollywood’s best actors. Through his character, Holmes tries to make peace with his life and this process is a delight to watch. A father-son dynamic forms and the relationship between these two characters is incredibly charming. It’s because Parker is such a fantastic actor that these scenes work. The elderly man/growing boy scenario often comes across as a cheap method to gain sentiment, but it works here because of the authenticity of the performances.

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It doesn’t hurt that Laura Linney rounds out the cast. She plays the stern caretaker who can’t hide her empathy for the aging Holmes. She has the difficult task of dealing with him and his mental and physical ailments while handling her increasingly disobedient son who can ignore the old man’s flaws if it means an escape from the boredom of his working class upbringing.

It’s no surprise that this is an unorthodox Sherlock Holmes tale. We don’t even see the classic deerstalker hat and pipe, elements of the character that Holmes explains Watson made up in his fictionalized accounts of his friend. It appears Watson wanted to exaggerate to entertain. Mr. Holmes works as a competent character study with some great performances and an intriguing plot when not confusing, but even with all these elements the final product still feels a little stale. Though rarely the case with movies, Mr. Holmes could be accused of having too much substance and not enough flash. Maybe the filmmakers could’ve taken some notes from our dear friend Watson.

Rating: 3/5 Atoms

NR 3 Atoms - C

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Glen Ilnicki
Glen Ilnicki 271 posts

Glen has been reading comic books and playing video games his whole life. His unhealthy passion, however, is for film. He currently resides in Ottawa, Canada.