Monday 22 June 2015

Mr. Holmes

Where The Heart Is

Mr. Holmes
2015  UK/USA
Directed by Bill Condon
UK cinema release print.

“Well... if it isn’t Mister ‘Olmes.” as Dennis Hoey would often exclaim a variant of, in his larger than life portrayal of Inspector Lestrade opposite Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s Holmes and Watson. Lestrade himself is absent from this movie, based on the Mitch Cullin novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, with rightfully popular thespian Ian McKellen taking on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes character, as filtered through Cullin’s particular spin and director Condon’s sensitive eye.

This film is not the Holmes film I was quite expecting given the pre-publicity, although it’s not a million miles away in tone, that’s for sure. It’s at once a more complexly structured yet simply told tale which deals with Holmes in three different timelines, two very close together and one from his past, all running simultaneously as his new friendship for the young son of his latest housekeeper blossoms and  he recalls his final case. In one of the Conan Doyle stories, he makes mention that Holmes would like to eventually retire to be a bee keeper and that’s exactly where Cullin and Condon take him in this story. It’s here, from this vantage point in extreme old age, that he looks back and records in his journal for the boy, as well as for the audience, the fragments that are slowly beginning to emerge of the past in his memory.

I have to say I’ve never read Mitch Cullin’s novel so I can’t vouch for just how good or bad a translation of the source material this particular cinematic confection is, but I can say with some certainty that the movie version is an absolute joy to watch unfold and it’s one of these occasional forays in cinematic history which deals with the almost physical presence of memory. Now, sure there have been a lot of movies in the past which have used flashbacks to fill in the gaps and necessary information, used as a dynamic way of letting the movie maker go straight into the action of a piece and then reference the cause and effect of a certain character’s placement in the narrative in a way which informs at the right time... so as not to distract from the main blocks of the story. Indeed, without the importance of memory as a narrative device in literature and any other arts that use a linear timescale as a basis for the work, I’m sure we wouldn’t even have the term “flashback” in our language.

However, this film doesn’t treat the humble flashback in such a simple manner and I think that it belongs more, I think, to that rarer breed of on-screen yarn spinning that I personally tend to call “the cinema of memory”. There are a few directors who sometimes choose to use the visual memories of the characters in a more subtle way which, in somewhat of a contradiction, makes blatant the intrusion of the past but, in so doing so, uses it in a manner which changes the audiences perceptions of what the character is going through. Indeed, not just the character, but the whole direction in which the audience thought they were going, as things are revealed which change even the narrative structure to a certain extent.

Directors such as Tarkovsky (in Solaris and Mirror, for example), Steven Soderbergh (in The Limey and Haywire) and even the great Sergio Leone (For A Few Dollars More, A Fistful of Dynamite, Once Upon A Time In America) all trade on the way the memories of the past shape the future narrative of the film that is unfolding before our eyes  and Condon’s Mr. Holmes is another example of this kind of technique, as we follow three timelines (including a couple of other deviations, too) as we see a younger but still quite old Holmes unravelling his last case, the Holmes who went to Japan very recently in search of a root which he hopes will untangle his slow to come memories of the past (solving another conundrum in the process) and the present narrative of the film’s current timeframe... set as Holmes returns from Japan.

Needless to say, with the high calibre of the actors in this, including the main leads of McKellen, Laura Linney as Holmes housekeeper and the outstanding Milo Parker as her young son Roger, the trick of the narrative is rendered both simple and compelling, as Holmes and Roger also set about to solve the mystery of a steadily declining population of bees, and the dangers that this also brings to one of them. There’s also some outstanding support from the likes of Frances De La Tour, who seems to be getting in everything again these days, and Nicholas Rowe in a very special cameo as an on-screen version of Sherlock Holmes that McKellen’s “real Holmes” goes to see at the cinema. This last cameo being very special because, at 47 years of age, Rowe is basically returning to the role for which he is best known, as the titular character in the 1985 movie Young Sherlock Holmes (known over her by the title Young Sherlock Holmes And The Pyramid Of Fear). I was half expecting Carter Burwell's small, intimate score for this movie to make some small reference to Bruce Broughton’s much loved score in the melody or orchestration of this scene, or even perhaps to pay musical homage to the likes of such Hollywood composers as Hans Salter and Frank Skinner, as a tribute to the Basil Rathbone thrillers their library music would have been tracked into and which this “film within a film” is obviously trying to evoke in the mind. Alas, it was not to be and that’s one slight trick that I think this film could have maybe done without missing... just to make it perfect.

However, the film is near perfection in many ways and, although I worked out fairly early on why the case Holmes is trying to recollect ended up being his last, and the inevitability of its conclusion, the deft sleight of hand in which the director and editor juggled the various different fragments of footage into something that distracted from some of the other on screen puzzles, like a conjurer allowing you to concentrate on one aspect while blinding you to another, meant that the mystery of a certain aspect of what, in the film, is a dilemma for Holmes and Roger, was unexpected and, although obvious in its reveal and from foreshadowing in Holmes early dialogue in the film, it actually took me by surprise for once... I’m both ashamed and delighted to confess.

Not much more to be said about this one, I think, other than the writer and director have both left Holmes’ dignity in tact and have managed to pull off a variation of the character which in no way detracts from Conan Doyle’s own version and which doesn’t mess, as far as I could tell, with any of the original stories. Particular note must be made again, I feel, of Ian McKellen’s outstanding and subtle acting job with Holmes, playing him as a cold, emotionless, almost grumpy machine until coaxed from this state and allowing the cracks in the character to show... while still indicating that his mind can be as nimble as it ever was. Holmes fondness for fact over fiction is emphasised but the warmth of the story and the development, even at this late stage of his life, means that Holmes, without giving away too much, also gets to indulge in the speciality of his former scribe Dr. Watson when he, against all odds, finds a use for fiction in his world after all.

Mr. Holmes is a mostly gentle, well plotted and executed film which gives the characters all the time to breathe they need. It also manages to inject a certain amount of heart and soul into Holmes’ life at just the time when he might, after all, need it the most. It’s a thoroughly recommended movie experience from me and you should all go see this warming and also tragic, in some places, story while it’s on its first run at the cinema. After all... Holmes is where the heart is.

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