Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Final Problem

Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes

I'm reading Neil Gaiman's new collection of short stories, Trigger Warnings, right now. One of the stories in that book is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, in which the retired Holmes keeps bees, travels to Asia in pursuit of a particular bee, obsesses over his last case, and deals with his impending mortality. There's a cottage industry in Holmes stories set during his retirement. It's a vast area of terra incognita in the Holmes canon, and writers have been rushing to map it out ever since the detective bowed out in "His Last Bow." Elements of such stories are often very similar. This can create a sense of deja vu if you read enough of them. I had a little bit of that while I was watching Mr. Holmes (2015, directed by Bill Condon), in which Holmes retires to keep bees, travels to Asia, obsesses over his last case, and ruminates over his impending mortality. It is otherwise very different from the Gaiman story I read this week. Based on the novel, A Small Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, Mr. Holmes presents a more vulnerable Holmes, one whose mental faculties are failing as he nears the end of his life and one who lives with regrets over events he can no longer remember. Holmes can sometimes come across as inhuman--Sherlock's portrayal of the detective as a "high functioning sociopath," for one example--something that this film sets out to deconstruct. The Holmes one finds here is very human indeed.

The story, as I've said, finds Holmes retired to Sussex to keep bees. Set in 1947, Holmes is 93. His contemporaries are all dead, and he lives with a gnawing sense of regret. He's just returned from Japan, where he's pursued a plant called the "Prickly Ash," in the hopes that it may provide a bulwark against his failing memory. His doctor has asked Holmes to make a mark in a diary every time he forgets a word or a name. His diary soon has a troubling number of marks. Holmes is being cared for by his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger. Mrs. Monro's husband was killed in the war. Ten year-old Roger no longer remembers him. He's fascinated by Mr. Holmes, though, and Holmes takes a liking to Roger even though he discovers that Roger has entered his study during his absence in Japan. Roger has read the fragment that Holmes has written about a case that Watson "got wrong" in the stories. Holmes knows that it's wrong, but he can no longer remember from where that sense of wrongness comes. With Roger's encouragement, Holmes reconstructs the case from fragments of what he remembers, occasionally prompted by Roger's deductions. Meanwhile, Holmes teaches Roger how to keep bees, and the both of them begin to search for the reason Holmes's bees are dying. Mrs. Monro disapproves of her son's relationship with Holmes. She resents being his nurse on a housekeeper's salary and is planning to move to Portsmouth to take a job in her sister's hotel. She's thwarted in this by Holmes's infirmity, when he takes a mysterious tumble in his study. For his part, Holmes circles around his memories of Japan and of his last case and remembers uncomfortable truths about himself...

Ian McKellen and Milo Parker in Mr. Holmes

The main draw of any Sherlock Holmes story is the personality of the detective himself. Holmes is candy for actors, and the draw of Mr. Holmes is the prospect of watching Ian McKellen play the great detective. It's a dual role in this film: Playing Holmes at the peak of his powers in the past and as a feeble old man in the movie's present tense. McKellen is a splendid Holmes in both roles, and really shines in scenes that puncture the arrogance that's part of the Holmes mystique. The best scene in the movie--one broken up across multiple flashbacks--finds the detective sitting on a park bench and verbally fencing with the woman he's been hired to follow during his last case. Holmes's arrogance in this scene covers a complete misunderstanding of human nature. It haunts him for the rest of his days. The film is less sure-footed when it takes Holmes to the irradiated wasteland of Hiroshima to find the prickly ash. There's an overwhelming horror lurking in these scenes that the film chooses to skip over, much to its detriment. Although Holmes's trip to Japan is key to the film's ideas of redemption, the episodes set there are the least interesting parts of the film. The structure of the film, built on multiple flashbacks, sometimes tends to blunt the power of McKellen's performance, which is a flaw in a film that relies on that performance. Its formal qualities as film are upscale BBC, which means that as an aesthetic object, Mr. Holmes is very respectable, attractively mounted, and cinematically conservative. This isn't a film where the filmmaking intrudes (both current television series based on Holmes are more formally adventurous). Whether or not that's a fault is a matter of perspective, I suppose. The film compensates with other pleasures, after all.

Ian McKellen and Laura Linney in Mr. Holmes

The core of Mr. Holmes is the relationship between Holmes and Roger Munro. Roger is played by Milo Parker, and is one of those uncanny child performances that seem not to have existed during the 20th century. Roger acts as Watson in this film, as Holmes's foil. He's a bright kid, brighter than his mother knows what to do with, and whose curiosity leads him into Holmes's past. He takes the detective with him. "Remarkable children are often born to unremarkable parents," Holmes quips at one point, deeply wounding Mrs. Munro, who already doesn't much like him. Laura Linney is superior in the role, playing unglamorous and dowdy and haunted by the War. In her own way, she's the equal attraction of the film to McKellen. She's one of the best actors in cinema, even if she is often poorly used by her directors. Her performance at the climax of this film is testament to that.

Hattie Morahan and Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes is ultimately a deconstruction. There's a key to its ultimate aims in a scene where Holmes goes to see one of the filmed versions of his adventures--based on the very case that haunts him, as it so happens. In the film, there's a doubling of scenes we've already seen in Holmes's memory, converted to "penny dreadful pantomime." Holmes, in the in-film movie, is played by Nicholas Rowe, who played Young Sherlock Holmes once upon a time. It's a post-modern touch. The movie is nothing if not shrewdly self-aware. The difference between the inhuman paragon of the movies and the very human, very frail Holmes of this film's imaginings is stark. McKellen's Holmes is lonely, haunted, and alienated, terrified by his impending death, worried that he's gotten his entire life wrong. This Holmes makes drastic mistakes. In spite of this, he's still very much the great detective of Doyle's imaginings, and the film doesn't cheat an audience who expect to find that ideal of Holmes. There is a mystery--several mysteries, as it so happens--and Holmes deduces their solutions in the end, at least on the surface. Holmes never was one to probe the mysteries of the human heart, let alone his own heart, so adding that kind of introspection to the character and to the stock elements of his mysteries deepens the experience of watching him.

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