Jul 23 2015

Review: Mr. Holmes

I’ve often said I would go to see Sir Ian McKellen read his shopping list. I’m also a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. Put those two together and Mr. Holmes looked like the perfect movie for me.

Sure, I heard it was a bit slow paced. No action at all. Just a drama about an aging detective, with no murder to be solved. But that didn’t stop me from going. Remember? I would go see the man, “. . . read his shopping list?” I wasn’t expecting much, outside of some marvelous acting from McKellen.

And I got that. Oh yeah, I got that in spades. I also watched excellent performances by every single supporting character. A nice surprise. And the script by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullen, was top-notch; another nice surprise.

But what really boggled me was the extent to which Mr. Holmes seemed like custom crack designed just for me.

What am I talking about? I like books and movies that make me work a little bit. Straight murder mysteries are right up my alley, but so are stories where the mystery is more about what is really happening underneath the obvious to and fro of the characters. Where every action, every nuance, are clues to a more existential riddle relating to the why and wherefore of the story. Where the story leads to a surprise ending, all the more surprising because only when you get there can you see how that ending was inevitable.

These kind of stories are really hard to write. I should know, I’m working on one of my own right now. And to make that story still lead to a very human and very satisfying denouement; while making that ending the last thing the audience expects? Hardest of all and the kind of ending I dream of writing myself.

Mr. Holmes delivers that kind of mystery and that kind of ending. And it does it while hanging a hundred Chekov’s guns on every wall and then firing each and every one in succession in the last few scenes of the movie. There was not a wasted word, not an extraneous moment here. Every frame worked as part of the whole to deliver a great ending.

And that is why I can’t tell you anything that happens in the movie. This is a film where everything is a spoiler.

I can only tell you this; the Sherlock Holmes written by Cullen and delivered by McKellen is the classic Holmes. A curmudgeon. A lonely man made all the more lonely by the fact that, outside of a recluse brother and his own greatest enemy, he must live in a world nearly bereft of intellectual equals. Certainly that Holmes has an attachment to Watson and to others, but more like one would love a dog than anything else.

This is the Holmes originally created by Doyle, not one of the more modern versions and most certainly not the Holmes made famous by Basil Rathbone. No, this is the Holmes that, until now, was best played by Jeremy Brett.

Only, instead of catching murderers, Cullen and McKellen’s Holmes is dealing with the unpleasant realities of encroaching senility and impending death. And with the weight of the great failure that forced him into retirement at his isolated house with only his bees, his housekeeper, and her son for company.

One can only wonder how McKellen felt, playing a 94 year old Holmes. At the age of 76 himself, putting on the persona of a man only a few steps closer to death must have been wearing. To move with obvious difficulty, displaying the slack expressions of age and the memory of a failing brain. It must have felt a bit like tempting the Reaper.

But play that ailing and infirm Holmes he did, masterfully. And he made the complex and wonderful ending of this movie work on every level.

As I said, this seemed like crack made just for me. Your mileage might vary. But if you are willing to bring something to your entertainment instead of having it passively delivered to your brain, I think you might like it too. Give this slow, quiet, amazing movie a chance. It might turn out you like the same kind of crack.