Review by Pamela Zoslov
No one was more surprised by the worldwide
popularity of Sherlock Holmes than his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle,
who had conceived Holmes as new kind of detective, one who used
scientific methods to solve his cases. Conan Doyle had trained as a
doctor and clerked in Edinburgh for Dr. Joseph Bell, a doctor with
the ability to diagnose patients solely through the power of
observation. Conan Doyle modeled Holmes after Dr. Bell, who took
pride in having been the model for Holmes and assisted in police
investigations in Scotland.
In a filmed recording, Conan Doyle elaborated on the
origin of Holmes. “I used to occasionally read detective stories,
and what annoyed me was how the detective would get at his results
through some sort of lucky chance, or fluke.” It occurred to him
that if a “scientific man,” like Bell, were in the detective
business, “he wouldn't do these things by chance. He'd get the
thing by building it up scientifically.”
The author's creation took on a life of its own,
becoming what he called “this monstrous growth...out of what was a
comparatively small seed.” The enduring success of Holmes bemused his creator, who ultimately wanted to be rid of him. “The curious thing is how many people around the world
are convinced that he is a living human being,” Conan Doyle said.
“I get letters addressed to him I get letters asking for his
autograph, I get letters addressed to his other stupid friend,
Watson, I've even had ladies writing who would be very glad to work
as his housekeeper. One of them, when she heard that he had turned to
the occupation of keeping bees, wrote that she was an expert at
segregating the queen, and that she was evidently predestined to be
the housekeeper of Sherlock Holmes.”
Holmes' life continued quite independently of the
author, who died in 1930. The character has been reinterpreted and
created anew for subsequent generations. At least two novels have
depicted Holmes in his dotage, tending to his bees in a Sussex
farmhouse. One of them, Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind,
is the basis of Bill Condon's new film, MR. HOLMES, staring Ian McKellen as the 93-year-old detective.
It is a lovely film, photographed in burnished period tones by Tobias A. Schliessler and enhanced by
Carter Burwell's characteristically subtle score. The
movie is similar in some ways to Condon's 1998 Gods and Monsters,
which also starred McKellen as a gifted eccentric (film director
James Whale), living his twilight years with a stern housekeeper.
McKellen, a lively 76-year-old, fully inhabits the nonagenarian
The year is 1947, and Holmes has just returned from
Hiroshima, Japan, where he traveled in search of prickly ash, a
remedy he hopes will restore his failing memory. He wants to write
his own version of events he believes were misrepresented by Dr.
Watson and made into a rather ridiculous, mustache-twirling movie. It
was Holmes' final case, which involved Ann, a young married woman who, bereaved by several miscarriages, fell under the sway
of a Spiritualist music teacher. Holmes can't, for the life of
him, remember the details, and he wants to complete the story before
Living with Holmes is his perpetually cross
housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son, Roger (Milo
Parker), who looks up to Holmes and is ravenously curious about his
past cases. “Did you do 'the thing'?” Roger asks as Holmes
recounts a case history — “the thing” being Holmes' legendary
trick of deductive reasoning. Under Holmes' tutelage, Roger also
learns about beekeeping, to the horror of his worried mother (as it
turns out, with good reason).
Mrs. Munro regularly discards the stacks of letters
Holmes receives, and is eager to change jobs rather than care for the
increasingly frail old man (“He needs a nurse, not a housekeeper”).
Mrs. Munro's plan to relocate is deeply upsetting to young Roger,
whose father died in the war and who's grown close to Holmes.
Linney's uncertain English accent is the film's weakest point; young
Milo Parker's appealing, natural presence is one of the brightest.
The story is a weave of narrative threads:
flashbacks of the case of Ann; Holmes' recent trip to Japan, at the
invitation of Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who wants information
about his father that he believes Holmes can provide; and the present
day, which finds Holmes battling the infirmities of old age and
contemplating his duty to Roger and his mother. Holmes, as a “real”
person and a celebrity, must contend with the popular, fictional
Holmes. No, he doesn't smoke a pipe: “I prefer cigars.” Nor did
he ever wear a deerstalker cap, the fancy of a book illustrator. “I
think I was real once,” he reflects, “until John [Watson] made me
Humanity can be baffling to Holmes, and often his logical mind trumps politeness. When
Mrs. Munro remarks on her son's intelligence, Holmes tells her,
“Exceptional children are often the product of unremarkable
parents.”A theme that runs throughout is Holmes' late-life
recognition that logic must be balanced by compassion. He remembers,
with regret, than in his only encounter with Ann (Hattie Morahan), she tried to
connect with him emotionally, and he clung to his rational mindset.
The devastated landscape of Hiroshima, the fate of Mr. Umezaki's
father, and a terrible accident that befalls Roger also call him to
consider a more supernal side of life, as did Arthur Conan Doyle, who
became a famous adherent of Spiritualism. 3 3/4 out of 4 stars.