Since we’ve seemed to hit a wall of bricks when it comes to creating new stories, revisionism is a useful technique to breathe life into tired storylines. In order for it to work, something new must be added to replenish the familiar, beloved elements.
Mr. Holmes, the latest reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary creation, doesn’t pan out ultimately for lack of imagination. Its anesthetized tone plays more like a maudlin Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of a Victorian novel or another one of one of those overabundant biopics.
It seems like a more profound movie than it is by juggling three storylines: the “present,” 1947, where an elderly, senile Holmes (Ian McKellan) has secluded himself in his countryside estate with a housekeeper and her son; the near past when Holmes goes to Japan to take his first case in many years; 1917, the final case before Holmes’ self-imposed exile. As soon as the film drops the convoluted editing (dropping things seems to be this film’s MO), it is unambiguously clear that this film is more of a biopic and that the mystery is secondary.
Like so many of the biopics that pimp themselves to the Oscars, Mr. Holmes is contingent on the performance of its protagonist. Ian McKellan, whose sassy whimsy has made him a social media darling, excels in the 1917 scenes where Holmes is written as dapper and debonair. He is less successful at rendering Holmes’ egomania than Benedict Cumberbatch or Basil Rathbone, which makes much of the character’s motivation and struggle fuzzy and he enacts some of the senile episodes as if he’s on stage.
My friend, who liked Mr. Holmes, argued that its brilliance is that all of the three storylines are fodder for one incident at the end. I am a sucker for a clever twist ending (Alfred Hitchcock Hour’s “An Unlocked Window” has a brilliant red herring). Unlike that excellent episode, which had buildup and atmosphere all the way through, I have a hard time mustering enthusiasm for a film in which the journey leading up to the finale just isn’t exciting.
I personally found the twist to be a letdown because it, like every other plot point, came about through conveniently opportune flashes of Holmes’ perfect lucidity.
This movie makes you realize the importance of Dr. Watson. Its substitute, Holmes’ servant’s young son Roger (Milo Parker), has none of the understated debonair repartee that made Holmes and Watson an inseparable pair. Instead, with Roger, who is more like Bert Ward’s Robin without the colorfully cheesy dialogue, Holmes is reduced to a curmudgeonly life coach.
Bill Condon brings an empathetic eye and a less willing tendency to pander to the audience that makes him a cut above many of the mediocre directors making period movies and biopics today. He undercuts it with an earnest and romanticized tone towards his characters and the time period.
One admirable touch is the elimination of explanatory intertitles, forcing us to piece the chronology through the costumes, sets, and dialogue. The makeup department went overboard with Holmes’ face in the present scenes, adding an insane amount of wrinkles compared to the time in Japan, which led to some initial confusion of the chronology. (At some points it is reminiscent of the play dough-esque prosthetics of Joan Crawford’s disfigured face in A Woman’s Face).
His nose got a whole ton bigger; perhaps it’s a symbolic Pinocchio gesture representing the lies Holmes has told. My unprovable conspiracy theory is that Harvey Weinstein had something to do with it, hoping that it will win McKellan the Oscar the same way it did for Nicole Kidman.
Laura Linney most likely was cast as for her recognition by the Indie Movie and Masterpiece crowds. More than the distractingly inconsistent dialect, which sounds like a jumble of Welsh, Irish, and God knows what, Linney, like other American actors, can’t play hoi polloi servitude with the same grittiness and anonymity of a venerable British character actor. When all’s said and done, it probably would be of little consequence because the role, no matter who played it, is a thankless one.
Out of the bland supporting characters, only Hattie Morahan transcends the hollowness of her storyline, with her expressively sorrowful eyes and a Victorian face marked with weariness, making us sympathetic to her plight in a way that the film fails to do.
There were some salient ideas in this movie. Unfortunately, they were all crammed into the third act. I particularly found the motif of Holmes as somebody who let others down particularly intriguing, but his feelings of guilt and remorse only manifested at the end. The film lets Holmes off too easily for his selfishness; the non-apology letter to his Japanese client wasn’t even close to suitable recompense.
My advice to Sherlock Holmes aficionados is to watch (or rewatch) the Benedict Cumberbatch version. With exception to the third season, which was bloated, overproduced, and vapid, writers Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss successfully transpose Doyle’s ghoulish and effete tone to a messy, fraught geopolitical 21st century London. Benedict Cumberbatch, who makes Holmes a likable devious sociopath, does the iconic part the most justice in recent history.