At the heart of Mr. Holmes (2015) lies that old John Ford maxim about printing the legend. Bill Condon’s film is an investigation into the trouble caused by creative licence and bending the truth. Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character of course, but even so, but as an examination of facts and falsehoods, logic and illogic, time and memory, it rings with soulful acceptance of human flaws. Mr. Holmes, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullen, is a gentle yet gripping drama that fits neatly with Condon’s previous Oscar-winning collaboration with actor Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters (1998).
These two period pieces are both centred on men of auric brilliance in the winters of their lives. It doesn’t matter that one of them is purely the invention of a celebrated author (Arthur Conan Doyle). Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), is seeing out his final years in seclusion, in deepest Sussex. He’s not kicking back and enjoying his retirement, however. Coming at it from a particular angle, Mr. Holmes is a ghost story. The phantoms rattling their chains appear, here, as memories emerging spirit-like from the subconscious.
Key scenes and moments play out in a haunted mind, not a haunted house. One case in particular has bugged the now-nonagenarian for decades. But there is a welcome twist to events. Ghosts have often served as handy metaphors for the past, but there’s deep melancholy to be found in the idea that once memories fade, ghosts do too. It’s an ingenious spin, to make a story about redemption and the righting of wrongs, simply because we never associate Holmes with such mental gaffes. Yet to counter the assertion of his outright genius or that he’s never made a mistake, he informs others, more than once, that many exploits were embellished by a writer: John Watson, his sidekick. This isn’t a film about tackling Moriarty or searching for beast-like hounds on Cornish moors, Holmes’ greatest foe is the onset of dementia. It’s a race against time plot imperilled by extreme old age, powered by regret. Holmes’ epiphany is the acceptance of human fondness for irrational behaviour. Something he can never solve, despite his use of forensic science and application of logic.
What makes Holmes’ recognition bristle with poignancy, rather than misanthropy, goes back to the millstone of being a legend: he’s a man with feelings, too. McKellen plays the character with typical aplomb and grace. Laura Linney, adopting a West Country lit, is also excellent as the frustrated housekeeper. If Holmes’ voyage is purely mental, hers is literally geographical and defined by class – she feels trapped and cut off, wasting the best years of her life to look after some old geezer who’s losing his marbles. The undercurrent of class-conflict and social embarrassment is unusual, but is another demonstration of how Condon’s film doesn’t want to make the material too cosy and twee – and it could easily have opted for both. There is anguish and pain here, but the direction, performances and screenplay deftly avoid cheap sentimentality and grandstanding moments. Mr. Holmes is all the richer for it.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn