Four stars. Rated PG, for disturbing images and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang
Some stage actors spend their entire careers hoping to play Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. When it comes to great literary characters, however, the ne plus ultra appears to be Sherlock Holmes.
How else to explain the scores of individuals who’ve taken a crack at the world’s most famous consulting detective? When Guinness World Records honored Holmes as the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV, three years ago, he had been depicted 254 times by more than 75 actors.
That list now includes the venerable Ian McKellen, starring in director Bill Condon’s adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 Holmes pastiche, A Slight Trick of the Mind.
Arthur Conan Doyle purists may be dismayed by this handling of their beloved detective, for this is not the hard-charging rationalist depicted with authoritative panache by Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch and many others. McKellen instead gives us a frail, almost feeble Holmes, long removed from his illustrious career, vulnerable to the ravages of time, advanced age and self-doubt.
Condon’s film has an atmosphere of despondent finality about it: a tone similar to that employed by Richard Lester in 1976’s equally melancholy Robin and Marian, wherein Sean Connery’s exhausted and aging Robin Hood is poised at the similar precipice of mortality.
But even if this Holmes is a shadow of his former vigorous self, McKellen’s twinkling eyes and insightful gaze (at the detective’s better moments) remind us that the zealous pursuer of clues may be deeply buried within this dilapidated frame ... but he’s still there.
The time is 1947, and the 93-year-old Holmes is long retired, having moved to a quiet farmland home along the Sussex coast, in order to tend to his bees (as per Doyle’s projection of where the detective would wind up, late in life). Meals and other modest needs are handled by a live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker).
Her husband, the boy’s father, was killed in the war.
Scripter Jeffrey Hatcher retains the structure of Cullin’s book, which cross-cuts between three narratives. The first and most extensive, set in the “present” of 1947, finds the increasingly lonely Holmes bonding with young Roger, who in turn admires the great detective as a father figure. Roger’s mother, all too aware of Holmes’ age, worries that this might not be advisable for a boy who already has lost his real father.
For Holmes, the thought of building a new relationship — given his limited emotional skills — is frightening. And yet he senses the necessity, because he has outlived the cast of colorful friends and associates who remained at his side for so many years: his brother Mycroft, Dr. Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. The notion that Holmes had no “family” always was nonsense, because Doyle armed him with a sterling support system.
As the film begins, Holmes has just returned from a visit to Japan: a trip prompted by correspondence with a Japanese admirer, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). Long interested in anything that might increase longevity and forestall dementia, Holmes is encouraged by Umezaki’s familiarity with the prickly ash bush, a plant of supposed restorative powers, which is known to grow in Hiroshima.
Details of this visit, and the search for prickly ash, unfold in brief segments: the second narrative.
At the same time, Holmes has put pen to paper in order to write a story himself — a task he traditionally left to Watson — that turns on the particulars of his final case. Holmes knows that it must have been a “failure,” because its unhappy resolution drove him to what has become a three-decade retirement. But fading memory has robbed him of details, and he cannot recall what (apparently) went so drastically wrong.
He therefore hopes that approaching the case as an author might lift the veil. Roger is all encouragement, delighted by the prospect of reading yet another Sherlock Holmes tale. This, then, is the third storyline; the film periodically jumps back to London in 1919, as Holmes accepts a case brought by Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), a distraught husband who cannot understand why his wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan), is pulling away from him.
In lesser hands, such intermingled narratives could be awkward, even confusing. But Condon and Hatcher have a firm grip on the material, and the mysteries and unanswered questions in the distinct storylines help shape each other, with each shift of time and place.
It’s also a clever stylistic touch, because what could be dubbed “The Adventure of the Despondent Wife” allows McKellen a chance at a “classic” Holmes performance, quick of step and nimble of mind. It even feels like a typical Doyle conundrum, with a seemingly trivial domestic predicament that conceals darker waters, and unusual supplementary details such as a brassy music instructor (Frances de la Tour) who gives lessons on a bizarre instrument known as a glass armonica.
Holmes’ visit to Japan, in turn, also is somewhat more than it seems. The setting is grim enough, with much of Hiroshima still little more than blackened ash and the somber remnants of flattened buildings; even the sky is a foreboding gray. Ironic, then, that such a scene of nightmare destruction might host a plant with life-affirming qualities.
The film’s heart, though, rests with the irresistible, gently blossoming relationship between Holmes and Roger. McKellen and young Parker are marvelous together; the boy is precocious to a fault — often correcting his mother’s grammar — but also sensitive to Holmes’ shifting moods. When in doubt, Roger knows, he always can revive his older companion’s spirits by suggesting another sojourn with his beloved bees.
At the same time, Holmes is reminded of his own emotional failings, by observing — and correcting — the boy’s often thoughtless, even (unintentionally) cruel behavior toward his mother. Mrs. Munro takes such youthful transgressions in stride, but we know they wound her deeply, the pain etched in Linney’s expressive gaze. Mrs. Munro is otherwise tart and businesslike, more (we suspect) out of wounded self-defense, than any actual antipathy toward her employer.
Not wanting their film to drown beneath a constant barrage of emotional turbulence, Condon and Hatcher also have a bit of fun with the whole concept of the Holmsian mythos. As always is the case, this Holmes exists in a world where he’s fully aware of Watson’s earlier literary accounts, which — in McKellen’s mordantly amused telling — have built him a reputation far more flamboyant than actual fact. (Never did go in for deerstalkers or pipes, Holmes insists.)
At one point, Holmes even takes in a movie loosely drawn from one of his earlier cases, with his big-screen self portrayed by Nicholas Rowe (a nice inside joke, that, since Rowe, as a teenager, starred in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes).
Sanada suggests considerable complexity in his quietly polite role as Umezaki, and Roger Allam is memorable as Holmes’ solicitous and deeply concerned physician. Morahan is intriguingly ethereal as Ann Kelmot: somehow not quite of this world, as though she has removed herself from earthly concerns.
These admirable turns by the supporting cast notwithstanding, the film belongs to McKellen; we grieve each time his Holmes begins a thought, discovers he cannot finish it, and then, anguished, seems to visibly collapse within himself. We’ve been blessed, of late, with numerous depictions of elderly characters refusing to go gracefully into that good night; McKellen gives us another superb portrait ... for what can be worse than a man who, having relied for so long on his powerful mind, perceives the dimming of that once-incandescent light?
Excellent acting notwithstanding, this film remains a melancholy affair, and perhaps not a portrait of Sherlock Holmes that his many fans ever wished to see. It’s an intriguing irony, because this character portrait is fascinating precisely because it is Holmes; we’re absorbed by the drama of this great detective’s advanced age and escalating weakness, to a degree that wouldn’t be true if McKellen were playing anybody else.
But it remains a tough sell, even if Hatcher’s script pointedly avoids the mean-spirited conclusion Cullin gives his novel. This film is unlikely to prompt repeat viewing; it’s also an odd duck for big-screen theatrical release, particularly during a summer season laden with noisier popcorn flicks with far larger advertising budgets. Mr. Holmes feels like a Masterpiece Theater presentation that unwisely wandered off our TV screens.
It’s much more likely to find the right audience, I suspect, during home video afterlife.