A final chapter for fiction’s greatest detective, Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes sees a bright spark battling against the darkness.
Lost In Oblivionby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Much like Gods And Monsters, his previous hit starring Ian McKellen, Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes is the story of an irascible elderly bachelor and his relationship with a young protégé. Only this time, rather than the Californian suburbia of James Whale and his gardener, his latest film takes place in the fictional demimonde of Sherlock Holmes, adding an apocryphal epilogue to Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective series. For now the great sleuth has hung up his deerstalker, and Sherlock has become quite simply Mr Holmes. And yet, even in old age, those halcyon days of “elementary” investigations aren’t quite over, as the former detective deduces the business of his fellow train passengers or the break-in of his office at his country getaway. But, his memory failing, the once luminary Mr Holmes is engaged in a bitter fight against senility. And it’s a fight to the death.
Having given up amateur sleuthing, his flat on Baker Street and his shuffling sidekick Doctor Watson, Mr Holmes (Ian McKellen) has long since retired to the Kent coast. He’s still reeling from his last case, a story he’s trying to piece together as he writes his memoir. And so, looked after by housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker), he takes the boy into his confidence, allowing him to read of the case that defeated him, of Mr Kelmot and his catatonic wife, who after the death of her new-born baby starts forging her husband’s signature to withdraw money from his account to pay for another boy’s water piano lessons. Meanwhile, while teaching Roger the art of beekeeping (much to his mother’s mistrust), Mr Holmes recounts another tale – the story of his journey to postwar Japan and his quest to bring home the famed prickly ash, a royal jelly like elixir with mind-stimulating properties. Another intrigue that only now, in Holmes’ twilight years, finds resolution.
With its well orchestrated opening of quaint railway stations, vintage trains, and a legion of period extras, Mr Holmes has all the trappings of a best of British film. And there’s no doubt that after the success of Sherlock, its casting, storyline and acid green rolling downs are destined for a global appeal well beyond these shores. But following in the footsteps of the high-octane drama and hyperspeed deductions of the miniseries is no easy feat, a gauntlet Mr Holmes doesn’t so much embrace as ignore, retreating instead to a safer place – the tender relationship between a grumpy old man and a young boy, strung out between flashbacks of Holmes’ unresolved final case and the geriatric’s battle for memory. So far, so ordinary. And yet. It’s not just Ian McKellen’s delectable performance as the curmudgeonly Mr Holmes, who here seems to be settling into his position as national treasure, but the story’s swiftly beating heart that gives Condon’s film much of its energy and soul.
Switching between a sprightly Sherlock at the peak of his career and a slowly dimming Mr Holmes in his twilight years, Ian McKellen no doubt pitches it perfectly. And Mr Holmes really is at its best in his quietly tragic scenes of a once brilliant man losing his sharpness. But while Condon’s film takes obvious pleasure in revealing the man behind the myth, deftly explaining Watson and his published stories, Holmes’ sudden celebrity, the deerstalker and his apartment opposite 22B Baker Street, it’s in flashback that we see Mr Holmes at the peak of his powers, an urbanite in top hat, cravat and cane. Investigating the unhappiness of a married woman who runs rings about him, Holmes is given a fleeting moment to choose the thing his raging intellect has always denied him – companionship. A missed opportunity that proves his undoing as he lives out the rest of his days in anonymity and regret. And even though, as here, the script lays it somewhat inelegantly on the line, still it’s a point worth making.
Steeped in bitter melancholy, cause unknown, Mr Holmes reveals the tragedy of ageing, no longer able to remember the cause of his woes. Caught between remembering and forgetting, both ways are painful. But the memory of his one love, evoked through a glove or a flower, seems to bring about a welcome peace and resolution for Holmes now at life’s end. Like Sisyphus, the past always comes back to haunt Sherlock, just as the letter from Mr Umezaki informing Mr Holmes of his mother’s death reopens a black hole of questions and doubts. But despite the trials and tribulations of life, and a third age battling bitterness and senility, Mr Holmes impresses the importance of putting one’s house in order. With its multiple storylines, flashbacks and plot turns, Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes is a film about storytelling and pulling all those loose threads together. And whether in life or in fiction, closure it seems is both a beautiful, terrible thing.
Mr Holmes is released on 19th June 2015 in the UK