Skip to main content

I look like I've been attacked by the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mr. Holmes
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Ian McKellen’s prominent proboscis needs no adornment – after all, no one spurned Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock over his decidedly non-Roman nasal fixture – but one can at least appreciate that his Mr. Holmes prosthetic honk is a seamless, if superfluous, special effect. Much like the mystery at the heart of Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. The key to this nonagenarian incarnation of Holmes is his much caricatured emotional dimension (or rather lack thereof, as divested of all merit in Steven Moffat’s fatuously overplayed Sherlock version) and, as antithetical to the character as it sounds, the resulting film is a warm-hearted investigation of the processes of loss and regret.


As such, the actual trappings and regalia of Sherlock Holmes aren’t exactly irrelevant, but this would be as affecting a tale without such encumbrances. Numerous doodlings regarding the differences between the literary Sherlock and the real article are, semi-pertinently, included (I appreciated the “for aficionados” presence of Nicholas Rowe, Young Sherlock Holmes, as a big screen Sherlock, a nice little homage to a film that explored the polar end of the great detective’s life), as this Holmes is suffering the early stages of dementia and thus beginning to losing his certainty over which were facts and which mere literary inventions of his past.


Hatcher/Cullin (the latter also wrote Tideland, made into a film by Terry Gilliam) pick up on Holmes’ Sussex retirement as presented in The Last Bow and The Lion’s Mane (the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of which inserted Watson into the proceedings), although they don’t quite mesh with the idea here that Holmes retired after World War I; Holmes announces that if, he had brought the Kelmot case to a successful conclusion, he wouldn’t have left Baker Street (noting that he and Watson parted on frosty terms).


Some of the elements feel a little clumsy, signposting the passing eras (Holmes visiting Hiroshima). Although, in fairness, tying this into a quest for a retreat of his encroaching mental decline is reasonably sketched (the prized prickly ash). There isn’t really a puzzle to solve as such, however, and this isn’t ultimately quite as satisfying as the best Holmes fan fictions that take in his personal life (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Seven Per Cent Solution).


So too, Holmes deductive faculties lack any real dazzle; I feared the worst when precocious child Roger (Milo Parker, a ringer for a young Thomas Brodie-Sangster), son of housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney), intrudes on the aging sleuth’s routines. It turns out to be a surprisingly winning cross-generational friendship, though, McKellen modulating the gruff-kind-dotty characterisation expertly, and truly convincingly inhabiting a body entering decrepitude (and, thirty years earlier, one in relative vigour).


The signs of Holmes’ rudeness are in evidence even as he discovers the emotional ruin at his core (“Exceptional children are often the product of unremarkable people” he informs Roger’s mother), and there’s a rather stately, elegant race against time aspect to his desire to get to the heart of, and document, his last case before his faculties burn out completely (this imminent ruin appears to be dropped once the case is brought to a satisfactory conclusion). But the minor present mystery (what is killing the bees?), and its conflagration and pay-off, work much more effectively than the tortured trip down memory lane, simply because there isn’t enough substance apportioned to the lot of Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) and her burdened existence.


We haven’t become invested in her case, merely informed of the full circumstances on a park bench, and – despite some notable distractions such the armonica as a means of contacting the spirit world, and Frances de la Tour’s cameo as Madame Schirmer, with an accent almost as ludicrous as the one she employed in the recent Survivor – so Holmes momentary culpability in her demise lacks resonance. The occasional line invokes Conan Doyle’s own later fascinations (“He doesn’t understand. The dead are no so very far away. They’re just, on the other side of the wall”), but Mr. Holmes is really most effective dealing with the emotional stakes of the here and now.


And on that level, Bill Condon’s film is a resounding success. This is his first reteaming with McKellen since his previously most acclaimed picture, Gods and Monsters, and they share a reflective tone in their aging, isolated protagonists. Condon has a patchy relationship with material, elevating The Twilight Saga (well, relatively) but coming unstuck with The Fifth Estate. He’s clearly not averse to big screen spectacle (His next is Beauty and the Beast for Disney), but this type of smaller, more invested affair feels like a better fit. Mostly, though, it’s just a great showcase for McKellen, who draws on a touch of Gandalf-ian wisdom in his compelling portrait of sorrow and decline.


There’s lovely summery scenery from cinematographer Tobias A Schliessler (this does seem like a beatific spot to retire, an apt conjuring of Conan Doyle fate for Holmes) and a gentle yet insistent score from Carter Burwell setting the picture off nicely. Mr. Holmes isn’t by any means remarkable, but provides an emotionally satisfying rumination on the heart of a man who professed to be all mind.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Oh man, they wronged you. Why they gotta be like that? You exude a cosmic darkness.

Mandy (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes you're left scratching your head over a movie, wondering what it was about it that had others rapturously raving while you were left shrugging. I at least saw the cult appeal of Panos Cosmatos’ previous picture, Beyond the Black Rainbow, which inexorably drew the viewer in with a clinically psychedelic allure before going unceremoniously off the boil with a botched slasher third act. Mandy, though, has been pronounced one of the best of the year, with a great unhinged Nic Cage performance front and centre – I can half agree with the latter point – but it's further evidence of a talented filmmaker slave to a disconcertingly unfulfilling obsession with retro-fashioning early '80s horror iconography.