Wednesday, June 17, 2015

'Mr. Holmes' (2015) directed by Paul Condon

Since the ovary-tickling double impact of Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes has spent the last half decade or so undergoing a sexy renaissance. Gone is the classical stiff-necked Victorian monologuing to parlours, replaced by a rugged Sherlock who dives into bonfires, infiltrates secret government laboratories and defeats his foes with balletic fist fighting. Enjoyable as these latter day adaptations are, there's a sense that something has been lost in translation. 

Paul Condon's1 1947 set Mr Holmes sets out to deduce just what that is. Placing Holmes in an unusual time is far from a new idea; he's been remained as a detective caveman, hung out with Batman (via time travel) and (best of all), been cryogenically defrosted in the 22nd century. But Condon's Holmes (Ian McKellen) is the Victorian original, at 93 years old.

Having retired from detective work, Holmes now lives a secluded life in a Dover cottage, caring for his bees and doing his best to stave off senility. He's aided by his housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). As a man defined by his intelligence, he's frustrated and fearful of his dissipating memory, struggling to come to terms with his obsolescence in the postwar world.

What this adds up to is a curiously meditative narrative. The adverts had led me to expect a straightforward 'one last case': the old gunslinger called out of retirement to prove he's still got it. That doesn't happen - there's no bizarre murder, no lineup of suspects to eliminate and no trail of logic to follow.  The central mystery involves Sherlock's fading memory; he can no longer remember the trauma caused him to retreat into seclusion. His final case comes to him in hallucinatory dreams, objects, faces and places seeping into the everyday world.

Though we spend the majority of the film in rural seclusion there's two notable flashbacks. The first is to that mysterious final case; where we see McKellen's Sherlock still in possession of his faculties. This is so fun it's tempting to wish it was the meat of the film, but works beautifully as a contrast between 'then' and 'now. The second is more recent, a trip to Japan post World War II. Sherlock visits Hiroshima, walking through the burnt, blasted city in search of the sap of a 'Prickly Ash', which may aid his memory.

It's this image of the Victorian hero struggling to comprehend nuclear war that must stuck with me. Here is a man who excels at piecing together individual crimes, able to examine a body and reveal myriad hidden details. But when he's confronted with a crime scene containing 140,000 dead, he can't process it - all his skills irrelevant in the face of such a atrocity. It's no surprise that he subsequently dreams of towering, fiery mushroom clouds.

This is marvellously played by McKellen, who with little apparent effort bundles together classic Holmesian arrogance with intense vulnerability. This is a visceral ageing process; all liver spots, saggy skin and jagged teeth. It's a bit depressing to see Holmes shakily navigate his house, looking like the next tumble is going to make him shatter like glass. This is further underlined by the flashbacks to a healthier past; sprightly vitality and surefire dignity reminding us precisely what's been lost.

The supporting case are no slouches either. I've always enjoyed Laura Linney, here touching as the put upon, maternal housekeeper. Even the child actor, Milo Parker, comes out shining - his hero worship of the old man refreshingly underplayed. Shoring up things are a one scene appearance by an always welcome Roger Allam, and flashbacks to the ethereal Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), in whom the detective finds an unexpected chemistry.

Mr Holmes probably isn't for everyone. The most pulse-pounding sequence on offer here involves someone getting stung by a wasp, the rest of the film content to amble along in studied contemplation. But what it sets out to do it achieves perfectly, establishing an appropriate elegiac tone and maintaining it until the credits. Very much a Sunday afternoon kind of movie, but an exceedingly satisfying one.


Mr Holmes is on general release from 19 June.

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