Friday, July 17, 2015

Mr. Holmes

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 Holmes.

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 he dies.

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 fiction.”

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.

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