Bill Condon is a director who’s difficult to pin down. He’s done work as varied as the dazzlingly brilliant, Academy Award-winning James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters, musicals Chicago and Dreamgirls and the last two instalments of the dire Twilight Saga. But with Mr. Holmes, an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Condon returns to familiar and fertile ground with lovely results.
Mr. Holmes is an unusual revisiting of one of Western literature’s most iconic figures - Sherlock Holmes. It takes place in an alternate reality in which Holmes was a real detective as well as being the star of stories written by his assistant John Watson. Now in his early 90’s in the aftermath of World War II, Holmes has retired to the country, where he keeps bees and is has only his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her young son Roger for company.
Resurrecting a character like Sherlock Holmes could have been trite and gimmicky, but in the hands of this film’s team, the origins of the character are essentially secondary. Holmes is representative of the flawless, unimpeachable, infallible hero that populates the Western canon, but Mr. Holmes presents another side of the hero, the stark reality of such a person becoming enfeebled and troubled.
Throughout the film, with the aid of a special plant extract gathered on a trip to Japan, Holmes is attempting to remember and write down a story from his past that made him quit detective work, but he is blocked at every turn by the onset of senility. Using his gradually returning memories as a plot device, the film essentially builds three stories in tandem – that of a younger Holmes on his final job as a detective, his attempts to write down the story of this job as he develops a special bond with young Roger, and the story of his recent trip to a Japan that has been all-but obliterated by war.
It’s a remarkable achievement that a film as non-linear and reflective as this one manages to not only be an easy-going and decidedly pleasant experience, but also one that is very gripping. It’s also full of gentle and surprisingly effective humour that never feels forced. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, though it has a few moments that are a little clumsy or obvious, manages to locate deftly and with great nuance the pockets of dramatic air that tie these narrative strands together. The plot is rather slight when you examine it closely, but its interlocking parts are structured like a taut mystery story.
The cast are uniformly great as well. Laura Linney, who worked will Bill Condon before on the brilliant Kinsey is superb as Mrs. Munro, bringing a huge amount of pathos to what is essentially a tiny role. Milo Parker also turns in a charmingly natural performance as Roger. As it should be, though, the shining star of this film is Ian McKellen as the titular character. From the very beginning he brings so much depth and feeling to every line of his craggy face that we immediately read the playfulness, sharpness and deep sorrow of his character.
In the end, the separate threads that make up the film are plaited together eloquently and succinctly, using recurring metaphorical motifs such as the bees that Holmes keeps and a particular rose-scented perfume. This cleverly told story of regret, empathy and compassion makes its intentions clear without bludgeoning the audience over the head.
Mr. Holmes is not an incredible film – it’s hardly likely to change your life – but it’s a very well made and very enjoyable one. The main reason to see it is Ian McKellen’s absolutely stellar performance, but there is a lot more here than just that to enjoy. It’s a mystery that at its best has shades of Alfred Hitchcock, it's a delicate examination of memory and storytelling, and it's a profound portrait of the pervasiveness of loneliness, all wrapped up in a neat and very enticing package.
Mr. Holmes opens in Australian cinemas on July 23