Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mr. Holmes

Alternate Title:  Elementary Filmmaking

One sentence synopsis:     An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes, tries to recall the fading memories of his last case, the one which led him to retire in the first place.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm back, ladies and gentlemen, and I have another movie for those of you who missed my incoherent screams of anguish. It's about Sherlock Holmes futzing with beehives and has an adorable kid sidekick!

Wait! Wait! Stop! It also has Gandalf!!!

Ian McKellan is a treasure, as everybody on the internet already knows, and that is what led me here, to a quiet, simple movie about everyone's favorite constantly re-imagined detective. McKellan plays Sherlock at various ages between 60 and 93, showcasing the world famous detective both when he was still at the height of his abilities and in the fading twilight of his life, exiled by choice to a cottage in southern England where he keeps bees, drives his housekeeper mad, and desperately tries to find some superfood (royal jelly, prickly ash sap) that will restore his failing memory. McKellan is a wonder to watch in largely any role I've ever seen him in, and that remains the case here, as the movie wisely turns down the sociopathic assholery that seems to have become compulsory in Sherlock Holmes adaptations in the last decade or two, and instead simply turns Sherlock into a grumpy old man, whose experience with feats of deductive genius is so extensive that even the degeneration of his long term memory cannot materially harm it. The movie is full of moments where Sherlock "does his thing" (as one of the characters literally puts it), but the results are, as they always should be, impossible to follow until you suddenly realize how obvious it all was to begin with. Yet the film isn't just about sitting back and admiring Sherlock Holmes (as has also become compulsory), but simply using him as a vehicle to examine regrets and memory, thankfully without literally turning into Flowers for Algernon.

Show of hands, how many of you actually got that reference?

The reason the movie does not degenerate into a piece on failure and death (now you get it), is weirdly enough because the filmmaker (Bill Condon, who may one day find forgiveness for Twilight 4 and The Fifth Estate), supplies cantankerous old Sherlock with a kid sidekick, usually the death knell for movies like this, but in this case salvaged by two factors. One is the actual sidekick in question, a clever boy named Roger, played by unknown Milo Parker, son of Holmes' housekeeper, who bitterly resents his own working class background, and clearly sees Holmes as a symbol of a better, more educated, more intellectual life than the one he is almost certainly destined to have. Unlike movies that fell apart because of these sorts of characters (The Water Diviner comes to mind), Parker doesn't play Roger like a cute moppet, and McKellan's Holmes doesn't seem to know what to do with a kid anyway, and therefore simply treats him like he would any other mere mortal, layering contempt on him if he doesn't match Holmes' exalted intellectual standards, and permitting mild surprise whenever he does. It would be condescending if Holmes didn't treat everyone that way, and as Roger is clearly used to being condescended to (as are most children), one gets the sense that he enjoys hanging about with Sherlock Holmes if only for the novel experience of being condescended to by a professional. All analysis aside, the dynamic is simply excellent. Both McKellan and Parker handle their characters beautifully, and the movie even manages to coax a good performance out of Laura Linney, an actress I have never liked, whose last appearance on this project (2013's Hyde Park on Hudson) was not precisely a triumph.

And that's really all there is to Mr. Holmes, a simple, Sunday Afternoon kind of movie, not a mystery thriller nor a Lear-esque Damn-the-Heavens mediation on old age and death, but a quiet piece with good performances by good actors. Nice touches, rather than staggering acts of genius or shocking plot twists, are the stuff of this film, such as the notion that Doctor Watson, under the pen-name of Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote the stories of Sherlock Holmes in a sort of Hearstian semi-biography, something which leads to the admittedly funny idea of Sherlock Holmes going to see the famous Basel Rathbone movie adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, and then grousing endlessly about the inadequacies he is now expected to live by ("I do not wear a deerstalker!"). I liked the mundane, quotidian uses to which the elder Holmes puts his deductive skills, and the way in which the movie lets the audience figure the riddles out before inevitably spelling them out, and the simple, non-histrionic method in which the film allows Sherlock his subtle victories of intellect and deduction before re-framing the film entirely away from his state as the sharpest man in the room. There's a great deal of depth of feeling to Mr. Holmes, but none of it is shoved front and center onto the screen, as Condon clearly trusts that McKellan and his cohorts are strong enough actors to manage without the need to demolish all subtlety.

Things Havoc disliked:  The film is never boring, but it is very slow, and on occasion one may be forgiven, despite a solid script and excellent actors, for wondering just what the point of a given sequence is. So it is with an extended secondary flashback sequence to a trip to postwar Japan, where Sherlock must come face to face with the aftermath of Hiroshima. Though the sequence did provide a welcome opportunity to see Hiroyuki Sanada in a non-crap movie for once (thank you Railway Man), there really isn't much of a point to this entire subplot, as the film makes nothing of the themes of Sherlock being out of place in the modern world that it seems to be aiming at with this idea. Indeed, for the amount of time devoted to this excursion, there really isn't anything to show for it. Sherlock seeks for a plant in Japan to restore his memory. He finds it, tries it, discovers it doesn't work, and moves on. Vague gestures are made towards other thematic components of this plotline being involved in the rest of the film, but nothing definite really ever comes of it, and given the movie's already leisurely pace, slowing things down further with pointless vacation slides was probably not the best idea in the world.

Final thoughts:   Still, not every movie has to be Mad Max, and Mr. Holmes is honestly quite a good one, despite its pace and the occasional diversion into pointless rambling. Maybe I am a bit too forgiving of Ian McKellan (I'm the one guy who liked Apt Pupil), but I'd rather be wrong about spending a couple hours with actors I enjoy, than right about avoiding them. If you're looking for deep, thunderous drama from your British indie pieces, or simply want a spiritual sequel to the eighteen different interpretations of Sherlock Holmes on television in the last five years, then this may not be your cup of tea. But even in a year as overloaded with blockbuster action as this one, there's always time to stop and smell the beehives, if only to deduce by the flight pattern of the worker bees that summer is ending, and it may be time to start trimming the hay.

Or alternately, time to see what the studios decided to drop at the back-end of Blockbuster Season...

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  So... what did they decide to drop at the back-end of Blockbuster Season?

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