Crime Drama Review 2015: "Mr. Holmes" (Directed by Bill Condon, With Ian McKellen, Laura Linney)
Another year passes and yet another Sherlock Holmes adaptation. In recent memory, ever since Guy Ritchie's action-packed and machismo filled bravado of a reinvention took place in 2009 and 2011, respectively with "Sherlock Holmes" and its sequel "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows" the world has been transfixed by Holmes again. Featuring a very unorthodox, R-rated take on the gumshoe played with too much relish by Robert Downey, Jr. and his equally ass-kicking Dr. Watson played by Jude Law, Ritchie's vision was perhaps the furthest away in terms of faithfulness that you could possibly imagine. Think of the physical characteristics of Sherlock but fused with the debonair wise-cracking and womanizing of both Bond and Mission Impossible's unflappable Ethan Hunt with an anachronistic film score and many a guns blazing. It was surely a feast for the eyes and the guffaw-inducing curiosity of "how far can they really take this?" but it didn't really preserve the insightful qualities of him and instead relegated him to just being a run of the mill action hero. Many abhor those two movies for their nonsensical plotting, mustache-twirling and overcompensating cardboard villains and Guy Ritchie just being Ritchie for an excuse to masturbate into the beloved novels of Conan Doyle. Fear not! This delightful adaptation, "Mr. Holmes" is yet another reinvention of the character but instead of a retread it actually takes the character as portrayed in the books and plays out a logical extension of his qualities that offers an unblemished character portrait and deeply executed psychological study. It is also remarkably Meta in several ways.
The term "meta" is indicative of a work that is self-referential and often openly acknowledges its genre. In the case of this film, Det. Holmes is identified as a real historical figure and not a fictional character - well, at least partly. For those unfamiliar with Conan Doyle's output, Holmes's affable crime companion Dr. Watson is introduced as the chronicler of Holmes and the adventures they have together. The film winks at this notion several times throughout with McKellen's Holmes humorously disapproving of how Watson has written him but later feels that the work that Watson has done has helped to give his own legacy and life "meaning" and a "sense of completion" that he might not have had. This actually propels Holmes to write his first ever fiction book as he rounds the bases at the ripe old age of 93 as he looks back on a career filled with wild twists, close calls and sincere detective work that on more than one occasion cost him near everything.
The framing devices are unique throughout this film especially with its utilization of time. Most of the action takes place in the movie's present - 1947, with a tottering Holmes, long retired and removed from his line of work tending to his bees and his botany which are two passions that Conan Doyle infused the character with in his stories. He lives a solemnly remote life tinged with a great deal of despair although through most of the way you never get the feeling of genuine suffering. Watson has long moved away and gotten married. Condon wisely takes his time with everything as he offers us a Holmes that we've never seen in any adaptation previously. It is refreshingly traditional in its deliberate pace - a slow burner of a character study and mysterious suspense. The period detail is exquisite - think "The Tudors", Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette", and Joe Wright's ambitious adaptations of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice". The film then jumps to 35 years previously with a noticeably spryer Holmes in the heat of what would be his final case. Without giving too much away, these past sequences are impeccably handled and are shot abstractly like diving head first into a lucid but chronologically out of sequence dream. It is in these moments that we begin to see Holmes's mind beginning to fail him as he subtly caves into the human condition of frailty. Narration is implemented but not in a cheap, heavy-handed way and done so selectively.
We soon meet the other supporting cast - Laura Linney's Mrs. Munro, Holmes's worker bee of a housekeeper and her sometimes too precocious but endearing son Roger. These two don't just become cameos but are genuine supporting players and do wonderful things with their roles. In the hands of a lesser movie and creative team, McKellen would have stolen too many scenes and the whole enterprise might have come apart. Thankfully, vet Linney, whom Condon brought back from his last collaboration with her in 2004's Liam Neeson fronted "Kinsey", a biopic about 1940s and 50s zoologist Alfred Kinsey, more than holds her own in her scenes with McKellen and the boy. Milo Parker's Roger is an unexpected pleasure to watch. Unlike the majority of American child actors who appear miscast or who are just simply cloying and annoying presences on screen, the UK has a better track record with producing watchable talent whose careers don't usually become derailed once they hit puberty. It most certainly has to do with the training they receive as many of them cut their chops at London's esteemed West End Theater as well as the treatment they receive. It must be noted that the Brit's seem to treat their actors differently with a less emphasis on instant stardom and celebrity and more as children first and actors second. Daniel Radcliffe of "Harry Potter" fame has remarked extensively on this as an attribution to his success. As I was watching Parker, I could almost see him in the role as a young Sherlock because during the film he becomes Holmes's closest confidant and tends to him in a personal and emphatic way. He even goes so far as to help Holmes stave off his Alzheimer's as he believes Holmes can still reclaim what’s left of his mind. Condon invigorates the film on the strength of their chemistry alone and boy does it pay off.
So, what distinguishes this flick from other adaptations and why should you see it even if you aren't knowledgeable about Holmes? This movie is definitely for outsiders and enthusiasts alike. It treats its protagonist as human and relatable. It offers thematic commentary in the form of what it can mean to be lonely, the significance of maintaining one's vitality, the double-edged sword of sacrifice and ultimately, the ramifications of choice, honesty and selflessness. It doesn't make Holmes out to be this towering presence who is unequaled but makes him an everyday person who, despite his uncanny abilities and vast intellect, is still prone to the same Achilles heel that everyone faces. More importantly, this version of Holmes is caring, introspective, compassionate and not the immoral womanizer of Guy Ritchie's version. McKellen is perhaps only second to or on par with Basil Rathbone's timeless take on the character in his films from the 1930s and 1940s. Be prepared to meditate long after the credits roll as this film will certainly give you something to talk and ruminate about. It is delightfully existential and faithful in the best possible way.