Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Very Much Later Years of Sherlock Holmes

The new film Mr. Holmes presents a very different tale of Sherlock Holmes -- and not only because the story doesn't come from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Based on the book A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, it shows Holmes beyond World War II, at the age of 93. He has outlived his few other friends and family, and now lives with a housekeeper and her young boy as he faces his own growing infirmity and senility. He's unable even to remember the details of his crucial last case, though he's certain Watson's published account has dressed up events in his customary fiction. Had the case not ended in failure, why would he have retired at all? But perhaps with the encouragement of Roger, the housekeeper's boy, he can piece together his memories and write a true account before he meets his end.

Mr. Holmes is very much a character piece, and actors' film. So the cast means everything. Ian McKellen portrays Sherlock Holmes, and is the perfect choice. He plays both older and younger than his own age in the film, aging 20 years to play the fading Holmes, and perhaps some 10 years younger in flashbacks of him on his final case. It's a marvelous performance on many levels. McKellen captures the maladies of extreme age in a completely convincing way, and skillfully presents the sleuth still on top of his game in his 60s. He also plays wonderfully off the other two major characters in the story, showing a man yearning for human contact without really giving lie to Holmes' famed eschewing of such attachments.

Holmes' housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, is played by Laura Linney, who arguably has the heaviest lifting to do in the film. She's at her wit's end trying to raise her brilliant young son alone after losing her husband in the war. She has many powerful scenes with both the boy and Holmes, and Linney makes you feel for the character even more deeply than Holmes, the film's ostensible protagonist.

Then there's a new, young child actor named Milo Parker. While this isn't the most demanding of child roles (Roger is, for the most part, bright-eyed and eager), Parker is nevertheless called on in every scene to stand toe-to-toe with either Ian McKellen or Laura Linney. (Or both!) He never misses a beat, and always seems to be feeding an energy into the scene for others to play off of. It's the perfect performance for the movie.

Skilled though the acting is, though, the story is rather simplistic. It's presented in a challenging way to spice up the proceedings, bouncing around between three different time frames. But one of the time frame takes a long time to reveal its purpose in the narrative, and so the pace does feel a bit slack in places. Still, it does reach a fairly powerful ending that has something meaningful to say about the importance of human interaction.

If you don't mind a quiet, contained film -- and you like Ian McKellen or Laura Linney -- then the film is probably worth your consideration. If you need adventure to boost the contemplation, you're not likely to find any entertainment here. I give Mr. Holmes a B-.

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