McKellen can’t save disappointing ‘Holmes’

By Jasmin Lee
Oakland Gardens, N.Y.

When you hear the name Sherlock Holmes, an image of a lanky man wearing a deerstalker and smoking a pipe in the shadows of a dark alleyway comes to mind. Mr. Holmes, directed by Bill Condon and based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” offers a very different Holmes.

The film features an elderly Holmes (Ian McKellen) residing in a Sussex village with a widowed housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her 14-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). Set in 1947, the film centers on a tormented Holmes, who is haunted by fading memories of a 30-year-old case that caused him to go into retirement.

McKellen’s excellent acting and certain aspects of the cinematography are worth watching, but a choppy narrative and poor editing weaken a film that could have been much stronger. Overall, this is a movie that disappoints.

The film depicts three different time periods in Holmes’ life: his present life in Sussex, flashbacks to his last case involving a melancholic couple, and another period of his life in Japan. The scenes of Japan provide insight into Holmes’ character, but they fail to contribute to the plot, and their poor editing creates a lopsided narrative.

In one scene, Holmes is beekeeping in his backyard, and then suddenly, the movie pans backwards to excited fans confronting him on London’s Baker Street. The transition is so sudden, I didn’t have the room to process what happened. The scene develops Holmes’ character by showing how far he has fallen, but flashbacks like this one are so numerous that they drown out the central mystery in the movie. More than providing context helpful  to understanding the protagonist, these scenes confuse.

A subplot that takes place in Japan felt irrelevant. I don’t want to see the post-World War II devastations near Hiroshima unless they’re specifically connected to the movie’s central case. The film would have benefited from limiting its broad narrative to more scenes that advanced the plot and Holmes’ character.

It is also too scenic. The shots of rose bushes, towering cliffs and mountains, and soft and lush gardens are gorgeous, but they take up the majority of the film and swallow the characters. Characters should take over the scene. The scene shouldn’t take over the characters. The film feels more like a National Geographic special than a coherent movie.

McKellen’s portrayal of Holmes was the saving grace of the movie. He is the perfect elderly Holmes, juxtaposing the inner turmoil of an aging man with the knowing smile and quick wit of the Sherlock Holmes we know and love. 

The sadder, but more realistic depiction of Holmes offers a fresh perspective on a familiar character. After he fails to save the woman he’s investigating, Holmes decides to go into isolation. Many of Holmes’s fans might have expected him to be more resilient, but the movie’s greatest strength is its ability to humanize him. We tend to treat characters such as Holmes — aloof, hyper rational, and lacking in empathy — as incapable of making themselves vulnerable. Showing this side of Holmes gave his character a new dimension that viewers have not seen before.

The contrast between Holmes’ fame and confidence and his isolation and self-doubt is poignant. In this case, the cinematography works — the sentimental nature scenes emphasize Holmes’ loneliness and guilt. The last shot is particularly moving. Holmes places white stones around him, calling out the names of the people who impacted him in his elderly life, and then spreads his arms in the air before bowing. I was struck by the size difference between his body and the world around him. The vast blue sky and large green mountains below him are intimidating, but he transcends the grief and finally reaches peace. It was a little cliché but it worked. He gains the strength to move on with the remainder of his life.

However, viewers hoping for a gripping Holmes mystery won’t find it here.

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