Review: Mr. Holmes (Condon, 2015) – SFIFF 2015


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Sir Arthur Canon Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes is arguably one of the most popular characters in all of Western literature. According to the Guinness World Records, he is the world’s “most portrayed literary human character”: as of 2012, 75 actors have played him in 243 film and TV appearances. Add now Ian McKellen (in his 100th acting credit) for Mr. Holmes, an adaptation of Mitch Cullin‘s A Slight Trick of the Mind.

In this revisionist account of the famous detective’s retirement, Holmes resides in a Sussex manor, keeping bees and obsessing over dietary supplements that he believes will improve his mental acuity. In his 90s now, he has become a cantankerous old man. The widowed Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), his housekeeper, bears the brunt of his irritability, and she does so not with a patronizing cluck cluck but with the careful grace of a woman who has borne much and will bear more to survive, and so that her son Roger (Milo Parker) can have a better life.

Holmes is a famous man–made so by his associate Watson’s “memoirs,” which the truth-loving detective derides for its “imaginative license”–and young Roger is dazzled by his greatness. Though Holmes at first dismisses Roger as a tolerable nuisance, the chipper lad soon impresses him with his cleverness (and no doubt flatters him with his interest as well). Eventually, he enlists Roger’s help for feedback as he writes a corrected version of a case that has been haunting him recently–the last one he took and the one that convinced him to retire early. The only problem is that he can’t remember it.

Mr. Holmes is an indictment of a certain strain of materialism ascendant in today’s culture. The one that worships reason, dismisses the “illogical” or the “irrational.” The moral of Sherlock’s last case is indeed a worthy one–that the riddle of the human heart is more complicated than the mystery he was hired to solve–but the pupil learns his lesson too well. In the effort he makes to correct his past misdeeds, the detective throws all his old scruples to the wind. He becomes a born-again romantic, dispensing compassionate falsehoods and embracing  new dependents, all in the name of turning a new leaf.

If I said The End of the Tour represents the best of what traditional cinema has to offer, Mr. Holmes might represent the flip side–trading in sentimentality, celebrating feeling above all else, and hawking that unreasonably sticky-sweet ending. The film is barely rescued by the adept acting of veterans McKellen and Linney, but even their abilities can’t disguise the fact that the film betrays any sort of nuance or complexity for a neat and pat, easy-to-swallow Hollywood story.