Ian McKellan as “Mr. Holmes”

Watching the travel sequence that opens Mr. Holmes I couldn’t help laughing a bit at repeated shots of the elderly detective frowning with disapproval, at basically everything around him, until he arrives back to his home and his bees. Having spent much of my time leading up to that moment mentally drafting criticisms of the cineplex, Valley View, the concessions, advertising, movie trailers… I could not deny the amusing incidental caricature before me.

Aided by this I have decided to skip all of that, and take the opportunity to dwell on positive sentiments. I was most pleased with Mr. Holmes, and recommend that anyone interested in seeing it before the DVD release get a move on. (Given that, based on local schedules, it does not look to enjoy a long theatrical run.)

Sherlock Holmes represents a lot of things to a lot of people, so I cannot say for certain what anyone else might expect of this film, but it is definitely a departure from such standard as exists, particularly in movies. This is a contemplative, elegiac work; it features delightful moments of humor but little in the way of suspenseful plotting.

For the most part this results from its fairly close adaptation of the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, which I read four years ago. On the way home it occurred to me that there are some similarities, however, particularly in theme, between this pastiche recalling an invented “last case” for Holmes and “The Veiled Lodger,” which was the next-to-last of Doyle’s original stories although set in the detective’s prime. Whether this was any direct influence on author Mitch Cullin or on the filmmakers I don’t know.

I do feel safer in presuming that in adapting Cullin’s story to film, screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher was probably inspired to expand on Holmes’s remarks on the distortions of “fictional” portrayals, given how other adaptations for cinema have made such a large contribution to the popular caricature Sherlock. As this story is in many ways the antithesis of, e.g., the iconic Basil Rathbone films, I suspect that the opportunity for some playful metacommentary was too good to resist. Thus in one of few departures from Cullin, the long-deceased Watson did write a version of the “last case” of which his friend is struggling to recall the genuine details; curiosity prompts Holmes to sit through a film adaptation of it, the style of which is an obvious reference to the Rathbone series.

On the whole, Mr. Holmes is however a faithful adaptation of its own source. Just about all of the small differences seemed valid choices. I think there are good things in the novel which are altered or absent in the film, but I think most of the film’s rearrangement and limited rewriting adds something back; I’m not sure I would describe these as superior to the novel but I felt like they highlighted my appreciation of the original story, at least. Mr. Holmes is itself a very subtle work, for Hollywood, but A Slight Trick of the Mind is subtle in the extreme. I think the adaptation is more effective at expressing the connections, mostly thematic, between events of three different time periods, all of which feel no more than loosely connected in the book.

This screen version is more than good enough that the few chronological or other variances with the canon (which, after all, is treated herein as a significantly fictionalized work) are comfortably enough passed over. The one indulgence I will allow myself is puzzlement at the depiction of A Study in Scarlet as a tome more than an inch thick, even at a large page size; I will be very surprised if any such edition of this modest story has ever existed, and I’m baffled at why the prop department would have created one when a more realistic smaller book would have worked just as well. Bloody graphic artists. Oh well.

Otherwise, it’s a beautifully crafted film. I certainly had some hopes for Ian McKellan as Sherlock Holmes, and he did not disappoint. This was a fascinating Holmes, which felt very much McKellan’s own—although without any disrespect to either actor it’s tempting to imagine this as a hint of what might have been, had Jeremy Brett lived on to give us a Holmes in his twilight years. McKellan’s performance is fascinating to watch throughout, and at times powerful and even painful. Though remarkably vigorous for 93, the grand old man is failing before our eyes. It’s obvious that whatever rally he does or does not accomplish by film’s end, the threat of dependency—decidedly more frightening than mortality—is upon him.

Much praise is also due director Bill Condon, of course, and Laura Linney, whose housekeeper is an important but somewhat pale character in the novel compared with her flesh-and-blood human presence, here.

All in all a most worthy addition.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation