4-10 December 2015 #785

Mr. Holmes

While it may not be set in Baker Street, it is an essential imagining and extension of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sophia Pande

Over the years there has been a proliferation of Sherlock Holmes adaptations in literature, and in film and television, with the likes of Michael Chabon writing The Final Solution – a slim, erudite, charming novella about Holmes’ older years, Neil Gaiman’s delightfully trademark creepy, supernaturally motivated A Study in Emerald (both published in the last decade) and of course the innumerable, star studded visual adaptations that have brought the dour but beloved detective firmly into the 21st Century.

Mr. Holmes, starring the great British thespian Sir Ian McKellan, is a bit of a departure from the romanticised Holmes that one has come to expect from Arthur Conan Doyle himself and the multiple, sophistications that have almost deified the character.

Adapted from the cleverly titled novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and directed by Bill Condon, the film is set in 1947, in Sussex, with a 93-year-old Holmes living in quiet retirement, occupying himself mainly with bee-keeping, carefully watched over by his housekeeper Mrs Munro (the wonderful Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (played to wrench heartstrings by Milo Parker).

Holmes is in a state because he is slowly losing his memory, a terrifying deterioration that he attempts to mitigate by secretly traveling to Japan to locate royal jelly obtained from a plant called prickly ash, which is reputed to energise brain and particularly memory function. 

Over the years, as Holmes has aged, his failing memory has altered his recollection of certain events – in particular a case that Holmes is determined to solve despite his debilitation, helped along by little Roger’s immense interest in both sleuthing and bee-keeping. 

This is a tender film that examines the twilight years of a once great mind as he struggles with the indignities of old age, but is also possibly, oddly, at his best, a naturally crotchety nature being mellowed by old age and the charm of a precocious little boy. 

Ian McKellan, in his rendition of the famous detective, poignantly brings to life a character study that is designed to give you slow burning but nevertheless powerful surprises, revealing mysteries about both the weirdness of the human heart and of course, as with every proper whodunit, an unexpected, and in this case deeply tragic solution to the mystery that so occupies Holmes’s mind.

To me this quiet but deeply thoughtful film, while not quite what I expected, lived on my mind in a way that none of the other glibber films about Holmes have done because of its unusual trajectory and the beautifully drawn later life of one my own favourite fictional characters. While it may not be set in Baker Street, it is an essential imagining and extension of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

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