OLD HOLMES IS NEW
Sherlock Holmes was one of the first continuing characters I cut my teeth on. Before comic books. Before Doc Savage or any of the pulps. I don’t remember Basil Rathbone movies, but I remember reading the collections. I was an Arthur Conan Doyle reader. Long ago now, my grandfather bought me the giant two-in-one hardcover complete stories with the William S Baring-Gould annotations in a slip cover. I poured over that volume. I wrote a high school research paper on proving, via Philip Jose Farmer and his Wold Newton theory, that Sherlock Holmes was the illegitimate child of Heathcliff from WUTHERING HEIGHTS. And from there it was a small step into the pastiches. Loren Estleman’s SHERLOCK HOLMES VS. DRACULA, the Nicholas Meyer volumes, too many hounds to remember. I haven’t read any in years though. The past few years have seen more than a few visual representations. Other than Jude Law’s interesting take on Watson, the Guy Ritchie action films haven’t left much of an impression. Holmes has fared much better on television, both SHERLOCK and ELEMENTARY in their own ways are enjoyable with their own motivations and winks at Holmes of the past. I know pastiches are still being written. One that I am now curious about is Mitch Cullin’s A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND, recently adapted by Bill Condon into the film MR. HOLMES.
I am not a Bill Condon fan. I really wanted to enjoy his GODS AND MONSTERS when it came out, but the film came off as more pedantic, and off-putting. It’s not the miserable misfire that E. Elias Merhige’s SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE with its mythologizing of Murnau’s NOSFERATU, but simply lies limp. I don’t know what the greater tragedy of the two is. His two latest, the TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN films fall into a similar vein, if you’ll pardon the expression, are simply non-descript. If you had asked me to describe Condon’s style, I would have shrugged. It’s like Chris Columbus, he points and shoots. There is nothing that makes a Condon film a Condon film. Which makes MR. HOLMES all the more interesting. The opening sequence on a train heading to Dover, the vision of a bee on a window, Ian McKellen’s face, some simple gestures, and largely silent, is extremely evocative, and sets the soft languid pace that will permeate the rest of the film. This isn’t Robert Downey, Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch or Johnny Lee Miller. It’s not even Basil Rathbone. This is a nonagenarian Holmes trapped solely in his intellect. Even the flashbacks to Holmes’ last case are measuredly paced, more akin to the Granada Films Jeremy Brett productions with their flat staging, matter of fact pacing, and measured camerawork. Here Condon’s straightforward works for him well, allowing the flashbacks to unfold at the tempo they do.
Which is not to say the film is not problematic. Arguably, the most beautiful, and most emotionally expressive, sequence involves the elderly Holmes visiting the post-atomic Hiroshima in search of a plant that may cure his incipient senility. While meant to be affecting, and indeed is affecting, as the audience is thrown into a world of smoke and ash and mourning, it also comes off with more than a little bitter taste in the mouth. It’s not fully integrated into the film around it. More than any other sequence in the film. Perhaps it is supposed to reflect the confused Holmes, and yet no other aspect of the film, even the flashbacks, evoke this aura, this aura of the other. It’s as though Japan is used because it is alien, it is the other. Even the faux Holmes film sequences showing the case from the public perspective are not as oddly framed as Hiroshima is. In the immediacy, they are effective. In the scheme several hours later, they are more unsettling. Especially seeing them in light of the seventieth anniversary of Hiroshima this same time frame as the film’s release. Perhaps that was Condon’s hope, to force us to view, to confront the unhappy truths, much as Holmes does in chasing his story. But it’s not as effective as we would hope.
I am now cautiously curious to read Cullin’s novel, to see how closely Condon hues to his vision. The three levels, the remembrance, the present, the fiction as first penned by Watson and then parlayed into film, and the interaction within Holmes’ mind is well-drawn out. To use a much different film analogy, in many ways this a Merchant Ivory Holmes, with the movements encapsulated in the subtle fade of light in McKellen’s eye, a pan across the White Cliffs of Dover. It’s the minutia that counts. With the spectre of Holmes forgetfulness and senility, we’re left with the haunting feeling that perhaps there is still something more. Holmes own admitting of fiction when it comes to the denouement of the Japanese tale only adds to that. It’s a tight, swirling, brilliant script from Jeffrey Hatcher, darkly witty that captivates the audience. What is said. And what is unsaid.
The script is well-served by the actors inhabiting its world. Ian McKellen continues to challenge with his ability to evoke so much with so little motion. The twitch of an eyelid. A bare movement. His glacial elderly Holmes is a perfect foil for young Roger’s animation. Milo Parker equates himself well against McKellen, more than holding his own with a peculiar intensity and anger. It is one of the better male juvenile performances of the past few years, akin to that of Asa Butterfield in HUGO or Freddie Highmore in FINDING NEVERLAND, that balance of knowing and not knowing, on the precipice of adulthood, daring to forge forward. The tension of the two is perfect. Laura Linney has the largely thankless task of playing Roger’s mother, as close to an antagonist in the film we see. She’s not bad, but the part is largely underwritten, and played as a broad foil against the rest of the subtleties. Special kudos to the use of YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES start Nicholas Rowe as the film within the film Sherlock Holmes. He has that Rathbone vibe, and yet is surely his own Holmes.
Make the effort to go see MR. HOLMES before it leaves the theatre. It’s an excellent, immersing, and maddening paean to age, to heroism, and to what life should be about. As Sherlock Holmes himself discovers.