By Jude Warne.
With the recent onslaught of on-screen Sherlocks, one might wonder why a filmmaker would bring another interpretation into the mix. Why indeed. Well, with Bill Condon’s new Mr. Holmes, the why seems to be this: to present Sherlock Holmes as a regular person, i.e. a mortal human being who ages and eventually dies, a mortal human being sometimes incapacitated by memory-reducing diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Mr. Holmes’ Sherlock goes to the cinema to see the on-screen version of his own persona and chuckles at its missed mark. Mr. Holmes’ Sherlock clarifies for us that he never actually wore the well-known deerstalker cap. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was no regular person. He was an eccentric and genius, or as the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring British television series Sherlock put it, “a high-functioning sociopath.” Part of, or rather most of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes’ character is his astounding capability for quick and accurate logical reasoning. His human-ness is an afterthought; thus, those exposed to Doyle’s tales can marvel at Holmes’ talent and brilliance, as those exposed to tales of Superman might. Instead, Mr. Holmes forces the viewer to sit through a slow-motion castration of the much-beloved Sherlock Holmes character. We watch Holmes as his memory fails and frustrates him, and his mind, once his greatest asset, betrays him.
Condon’s film features a Jeffrey Hatcher screenplay based on Mitch Cullins’ 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. The story takes place in post-World War Two England and presents us with a ninety-three-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellan), long retired from casework, who spends his days doing what retired people do: tending to an outdoor apiary and trying to piece together selected fading fragments of his past. The fading fragments here are those that pertain to an unresolved case of his from fifty years prior, and the piecing together process is exacerbated by his inability to recall the events in question, which prevents Holmes from being able to use his investigative and analytical talents in full. At this point, one might wonder why Holmes wouldn’t go to his right-hand man Dr. John Watson for help in his recollecting. Holmes would, presumably – but Dr. John Watson has died before the film even begins.
Removing Watson’s character from this Holmes tale is perhaps its grandest failing. A key component of Doyle’s setup is the codependent relationship between Holmes and Watson. As in any partnership of quality, each component provides what the other cannot, and together they form an ideal, well-rounded person. Recent on-screen interpretations of the duo – Cumberbatch and Freeman in the modernized British television series Sherlock, Downey, Jr. and Law in Ritchie’s recent pair of films – and even the reliable Rathbone and Bruce of the 1939-46 Sherlock Holmes film series, make excellent use of this dynamic. In Doyle’s setup Holmes’ character is so eccentric that Watson’s point of view offers a welcoming invitation of a narrative to the average reader or viewer; if he or she can’t relate to Holmes on a human level, then he or she can certainly relate to Watson on one. But Mr. Holmes forces Holmes to take on both roles, and thus we are deprived of the potential character interplay and resulting humor. In an effort to rework the often reworked Holmes narrative, Mr. Holmes removes most of which makes the ongoing Sherlock Holmes narrative what it is.
While this film robs us of a Watson, it does give us a precocious young boy named Roger (Milo Parker) who is intent upon assisting Holmes with his endeavors. Roger is the son of Mrs. Munro, the reworked, albeit widowed and war-hardened, Mrs. Hudson (Laura Linney). While Roger’s admiration of Holmes and his legacy is endearing, the relationship between the two characters comes across as belabored at times – their banter is more cute than cunning. Mr. Holmes rides on the performances of veterans McKellan and Linney, and thus it rides smoothly. McKellan especially is a marvel to behold on screen, doing very much with very little, highlighting the missed potential of the film story’s aim. Most certainly every viewer of Mr. Holmes will, at least once during the viewing experience, wish in vain that a better artistic opportunity had been provided for such incredibly talented actors as McKellan and Linney.
The intertwining plotlines of Holmes’ one unsolved case and flashbacks of a recent excursion to Japan, while coming together well at the story’s end, are a bit lackluster. The implementation of this supporting cast is meant to provide Mr. Holmes with additional emotional weight. This implementation proves successful, yet it removes even more of the coolness-factor from Sherlock’s character. After all, isn’t the Holmes character, more often than not, prone to favoring logical responses over emotional ones? Here he is moved to tears when Roger’s life is threatened in an apiary-related accident. This is the natural human response, of course, but we love that Holmes usually averts producing anything natural or human. He is smarter than us, he is stronger than us, and we can look up to him. But old age has equalized Holmes and his fans, painting him as a once-successful individual now on his way out, a retiree who is also a bee enthusiast. To generate another why for Mr. Holmes – the myth of immortal literary characters is a beautiful and delicate myth, one to be perpetuated from one generation of artists to the next, a roaring and raging fire to be kept alive and constantly reinvigorated. Why destroy the myth?
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.