Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Milo Parker
Runtime: 1 hr 44 mins
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 6 August 2015
Synopsis: 1947, an aging Sherlock Holmes returns from a journey to Japan, where, in search of a rare plant with powerful restorative qualities, he has witnessed the devastation of nuclear warfare. Now, in his remote seaside farmhouse, Holmes faces the end of his days tending to his bees, with only the company of his housekeeper and her young son, Roger. Grappling with the diminishing powers of his mind, Holmes comes to rely upon the boy as he revisits the circumstances of the unsolved case that forced him into retirement, and searches for answers to the mysteries of life and love before it's too late.
‘Mr Holmes’ refers to the fictional Scotland Yard detective made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but this isn’t a tale driven by his unfailing intellect, his deerstalker hat or his pipe. Rather, as imagined by Mitch Cullin in his 2005 book ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’, Mr Holmes (Ian McKellen) had retreated from public life close to thirty-five years ago and is now, at ninety-three years old, spending his days attending to bees at a picturesque rural cottage on the English coast while himself being attended to by a frumpish Irish housekeeper named Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her curious young son Robert (Milo Parker).
There is no more Mrs Hudson, no more Mycroft and no more Dr Watson, all of whom we are told have unfortunately already passed. Though his health has not yet failed him, Holmes’ mental faculties are slipping, but before they completely go, he is determined to solve one final mystery – to recall his last case as the venerable sleuth, involving a husband (Patrick Kennedy) who believes that his wife (Hattie Morahan) is being seduced into the dark arts by her harmonica teacher (Frances de la Tour). As someone who feels that “one shouldn’t leave life without a sense of completion”, he is attempting to pen his account of what happened in that case which led to his retirement all those years ago.
Shown in extensive flashbacks, Holmes’ patchy recollection of the case is intercut with his present budding friendship with Robert as well as his most recent trip to war-torn Japan to visit a certain Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who can help him procure a plant known as “prickly ash” that is reputed to help restore memory. It turns out that Umezaki has his own reasons for wanting to meet Holmes, which is as much of a mystery as just why Holmes seems to be so utterly fixated on this one woman whom her husband describes as being afflicted by “dangerous melancholy” since the loss of their two children during pregnancy.
Those looking forward to some criminal intrigue are best advised to abandon such expectation; there is none of that here. In fact, Holmes addresses his fame to Dr Watson’s fiction which he describes as “Penny Dreadfuls with an elevated prose” and his representation in the motion pictures based on these books “as a character out of a pantomime”. Yet if there is one thing that the fiction had portrayed accurately about the man, it is his unfailing belief in logic and rationality, someone who believes in the mind above all things, including and perhaps especially over emotions.
It is this which Holmes is forced to confront in each one of the three interweaving stories, and which screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher deftly turns into a particularly poignant message about how empathy has just as much of a place as reason in human nature. Nowhere is this more movingly captured than in a quiet, rueful scene that Holmes shares with his female subject talking about loneliness and despair on a bench in a park right before she commits suicide, an outcome which he had never expected and which continued to haunt him for many years after. There is poetic elegance in the way his recollection of that traumatic past softens his edges, a transformation which director Bill Condon handles with nuance and delivers with surprising power.
Though he was more recently the helmer behind the climactic ‘Breaking Dawn’ episodes of the ‘Twilight’ saga, Condon’s latest harkens back to his earlier days as a talented writer and director of the critically acclaimed dramas 'Gods and Monsters’ (which also starred McKellen) and ‘Kinsey (which also starred Linney). This is a slow-burner no doubt, but Condon guides the intersecting narratives with a sure confident hand, sustaining a sense of mystery while suffusing the proceedings with palpable gentleness, humanity and warmth. This is especially apparent in the bond that develops between Holmes and Roger as the former shares his sleuthing exploits, tips about beekeeping and his last manuscript with the precocious tween who had lost his father to the war.
As much as we had enjoyed him as Magneto and Gandalf, they are simply no match for McKellen’s brilliant performance here. In his mid-70s, McKellen shifts with impressive ease between playing a sprier, younger Holmes and the same character two decades older than himself facing a diminishing memory and confronting the ravages of time. McKellen shares a couple of delightful scenes with newcomer Parker, and there is never a false note of sentimentality that passes between them. Linney holds her own as the stodgy innkeeper but it is theatre vet Morahan whom you are likely to remember more, especially that scene on the park bench with McKellen where she leaves an indelibly haunting impression.
Like a great Sherlock detective novel would, ‘Mr Holmes’ doesn’t leave any loose end untied – not even, we assure you, the Japanese subplot which may seem at first like an unnecessary distraction. The mystery here is no less than the titular man himself, and which finally builds into a deeply touching character study that will resonate quite profoundly with anyone who has ever been guilty of performing a clinical analysis on an individual. If this Mr Holmes started by scoffing at his own fiction, the fact that he comes not only to embrace it but to indulge in it is indeed most telling.
(Blessed with an impeccable lead performance by Ian McKellen, this atypical portrayal of the great Scotland Yard detective is a deeply poignant character study of regret and reconciliation)
Review by Gabriel Chong