Sunday 7 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival (14) - Mr Holmes (Bill Condon, UK, 2015) Reviewed by Max Berghouse

Mr Holmes gave me very considerable pleasure.

Sir Ian McKellen is 76 in reality with a trim body and very craggy face. He plays an ageing Sherlock Holmes at 93 and in retirement somewhere near the cliffs of Dover. Because of advancing senility he is chronically dependent upon his housekeeper, played by the wonderful Laura Linney and assisted by her precocious and highly intelligent son.

What is principally, indeed solely important about this film is the performance of McKellen. It is a real tour de force. I am pretty sure that, without make up, he plays the elderly 93-year-old and allowing for the fact that any film has to move a certain pace, and can't get bogged down by such accuracy details as a frail 93-year-old walking ever so slowly (in fact for a 93-year-old he is extremely sprightly), he is totally convincing. This is set in 1947 and Holmes apparently retired with one case remaining unresolved and with his diminishing memory, he can no longer conjure up the facts nor the conclusion.

No mathematician myself I may well have got these calculations wrong as the film indicates he retired 35 years prior when he was thus 58 in 1928 yet the facts of this unconcluded case appear to be set a generation or so earlier in the Edwardian period. Maybe I missed something in the dialogue but if I'm right and that the relevant unresolved case is set in say 1908, then Holmes is 38. During these flashbacks he typically wears gentleman's entire of striped pants and long frock coat with top hat: pretty convincing for the Edwardian period. Ultimately this doesn't matter much because McKellen is convincing in every scene and to this reviewer at least, this is the power of an actor fully in possession of all his skills.

In terms of performance Laura Linney, an American actress of great professionalism, plays a working-class English widowed mother. Her husband died in the Second World War and she plays a somewhat embittered, worn and downtrodden woman very, very well indeed.

I decline to spend too much time on the plot which is typical of the television whodunnit. Two streams of apparently unrelated story come together at the end. The detective story is neither particularly complex nor interesting but that is completely irrelevant. I expect that most people will hone in on the "detection" aspects of the film and make a decision as to quality based on those aspects and I've already indicated that in my view, this is irrelevant. The performances are the thing.

There is one related but subsidiary aspect which, because it is touched upon with such sensitivity, I find very compelling. Holmes, the master detective has really spent his life in the world of intellect and has suppressed human feeling. In one case he destroys a loving family by giving advice to the husband to separate. He, Holmes, is simply non-comprehending of relationships. He also destroys his own chance of happiness for the same reason with a woman who kills herself. Finally, in essentially what is the epilogue to the film, he realises his emotional attachment both to his housekeeper and to her son, whom he indicates are now his heirs.

As is the custom with BBC Films, the physical historical content (the whole film is set in different periods of the past), it seems to me very accurate and convincing. Some scenes are set in Hiroshima Japan in 1947 and outdoor scenes show, along with the Japanese, much bigger, bulkier American military dressed in full military kit. Holmes also walks along a street and sees a young Japanese woman scarred by the atomic bomb. This is extremely well handled.

Ultimately not a great film because of deficiencies in the plot, but absolutely unmissable because of the performance of the lead.

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