Friday, November 27, 2015

Catching Up: "Mr. Holmes"

 3.5 / 5 

It's widely accepted that Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on film more than any other fictional character, though modern depictions were sparse until a few years ago.  Until then, modern movie audiences had only seen him on screen in the spirited, rambunctious would-be blockbuster Young Sherlock Holmes, which tanked with audiences.

Young Sherlock Holmes is a terrific movie that captures some of the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character, even as it veers into effects-heavy Spielbergian territory, and is about as far from the quiet, contemplative mood of director Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes as you could possibly imagine.

However, it's worth mentioning in part because the actor who played Holmes as a teenager, Nicholas Rowe, makes a clever cameo in the latest movie -- and because both movies try to imagine less what Holmes might be thinking as he tries to solve a mystery, but the more difficult puzzle of what he might be feeling.

The 1985 lark made up a story that Doyle never did, about the very first case Holmes took on; Mr. Holmes also ventures beyond Doyle's territory and imagines Holmes's very last case.  The film is structured as a cinematic memoir, as Holmes -- embodied here by Ian McKellen -- tries to write his own story about himself.  The public knows him well, but only through the stories penned by his partner, John Watson; he wants to tell his own version of that final case.

It's been 35 years since he took on the case. Clarifying the particulars of the mystery is important to him because the outcome drove him to leave London altogether and retire to a cottage by the shore, where he spends his days gently tending to bees.  Now, his brilliant mind is fading, and Holmes feels the pressure of time weighing on him -- he knows that soon his memories will be gone, and it is of utmost importance for him to create a more accurate version of the case than the public has known from Watson's "penny-dreadful" novels.

Why does Holmes feel such urgency?  What could have happened in the case to drive him into exile? These are the central mysteries in Mr. Holmes, which is not a whodunit as much as a whyitmatters.

Holmes relays the story to the young son of his housekeeper.  The boy, Roger (played by the precocious Milo Parker), idolizes the old man.  His widowed mother (played by Laura Linney) is much more suspicious.  She wants to move on in life, away from the memories of what she lost in the war, and her son's friendship with Holmes will only make getting away from this life more difficult.

Young Roger becomes the first reader of Holmes's first self-penned manuscript, and he encourages the great detective to continue, but remembering the case gets harder and harder with every passing day.  Holmes recalls how a young man came to visit him in Baker Street, how the man's wife seemed to have been losing her sanity after the death of two unborn children.  Holmes begins to shadow the woman in post-World War I-era London, and eventually comes face-to-face with her.

It's that brief meeting that not only concludes the case but seals Holmes's fate.  The problem is, he can remember too little about it.  He knows only that what happened in that one short meeting set his own life moving in a different course, and left him isolated, lonely, filled with deep and painful regret.  But why?  Holmes feels an ever-growing need to know.

The movie also chronicles a trip Holmes took to Japan much later, after the next war, the one that ended with unimaginable death and destruction from the sky.  During a visit to Hiroshima, Holmes finds a rare plant he believes may help slow the inexorable decline of his mind.  He also learns that in Japan, grieving and mourning are not shameful acts; they are an important step in healing a life filled with regret.

And Holmes, it becomes clear as he reveals more and more of his final case, has much to regret.

He has stripped himself of all of his former responsibilities, has cut off the life he knew from the life he has, and as the boy reads more of the story, Roger wants to know what could have happened.  Ultimately, there is a revelation, but the conclusion itself is less important than what it means to Holmes, and how he ties it together with his Japanese journey -- and comes to learn the value of a conclusion that is less grounded in facts than it is in emotion.

That is what Mr. Holmes discovers is the conundrum behind the creation, and helps shed some light on why Holmes has been such a popular character for so long.  He understands all of the facts, but has never understood the feelings.  It's presented with lyric beauty, accompanied by impeccably gorgeous scenery and photography and a luminous central performance by McKellen (who meets his equal, at times, in the young Parker) and the kind of wistful air of lost possibility that also infused Condon's fine 1998 film Gods and Monsters.

Mr. Holmes is a lovely, quiet movie, small in size and ambition, though filled with impressive performances. Nonetheless, its final revelation is as fulfilling as any from one of Doyle's stories:

The brain works quickly and logically, but the head is slow and confusing.  Perhaps that is as it should be, because what the head sometimes fails to perceive, the heart understands all too well.

Viewed Nov. 26, 2015


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