Film Review: ‘Mr. Holmes’


Benedict Cumberbatch need not worry his boots are being filled. Ian McKellen’s take on Sherlock Holmes is more Sunday teatime viewing than prime-time blockbuster, but its stately pace doesn’t preclude Mr. Holmes (2015) from being a delightful romp all the same. McKellen reunites with director Bill Condon, who helped him to an Oscar nomination as James Whale for Gods and Monsters (1998), in this tale of the detective’s twilight years, retired to a chocolate-box Sussex cottage and long since retired from sleuthing. He still gets spotted (“Is that ‘im?” asks a passer-by), his reputation settled by Dr Watson’s stories published decades previously.

An irascible Holmes disapproves of the tales, calling them “penny dreadfuls in elevated prose style”, irritated by Watson’s made-up superfluous storytelling. He never wore a deerstalker and never smoked a pipe, “an embellishment of the illustrator” he complains to one ignorant fan. Living with housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney, with an off-putting country accent) and her son Roger (Milo Parker), Holmes retreats to beekeeping to fill the days. But a trip to the cinema to see an actor play himself in one of Hollywood’s adaptations of Watson’s stories (a genius black and white film-within-a-film) forces him to return to the case in question – which proved to be his last ever. When Roger follows Holmes’ passion for bees, he discovers that he is writing a new version which sets out the truth.

Holmes dismisses fiction as much as he obsesses over the “facts of the case,” but he struggles with senility (perhaps Alzheimer’s) and can’t remember why such a case caused him to leave the profession – something tragic must have happened. Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind”, this mystery is more inside Holmes’ own memory, and that is a fault. The film loses the focus on McKellen’s performance when we leave to overextended flashbacks featuring Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) and his mysterious wife Ann (Hattie Morahan). Holmes is engaged to find out why Ann, who recently suffered miscarriages, talks to her unborn children. And why does she obsess over the glass harpsichord, linked with the dark arts? McKellen, delivering his inimitable drawl, is inevitably the star attraction here. He doesn’t have to speak to have his presence felt, he can frown and find audiences laughing, and Jeffrey Hatcher’s script sparkles in his hands. It’s when the film insists on returning not just to the Kelmots, but also a superfluous sequence in Hiroshima where Holmes searches out a flower to aid his memory, that the film sags. McKellen is best upholstered by his relationship with the young Roger – an excellent Parker – which brings a rather melancholy closure in Mr. Holmes near the end of his life.
This review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 65th Berlin Film Festival in February 2015.

Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl