Featuring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind.
Movie website: www.mrholmesfilm.com/
Australian release date: Thu 23 July
Verdict: A slow-moving but absorbing portrait of Sherlock Holmes as an old man who discovers his long-dormant humanity. Ian McKellen’s superb performance as Holmes is alone worth the price of admission.
In the opening sequence of the film, which takes place in a train carriage, the wreckage of a German fighter plane is seen in a passing field, establishing the time setting as post-war England. Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), now in his 90s, is one of the passengers, along with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her 10 year old son, Roger (Milo Parker). The relationship between the three, and especially the mentor/protege bond that develops between Holmes and the astute, keen-minded Roger, is one of two main narrative strands.
Interspersed is another story from Holmes’ past – his last, unsolved case, which he is writing up in his journal. It is a difficult labour, for his memory is failing by the day.
Holmes is long estranged from Watson, now deceased, whose literary accounts of his detective work have made him a legend. Holmes is somewhat irked by his former partner’s use of poetic license in fictionalising him, and grumpily disappoints fans by demythologising himself: he claims he never wore a deerstalker hat and never smoked a pipe, preferring cigars!
Part of his motivation in committing his final case to writing is to correct Watson’s fanciful version. However, it soon becomes apparent that he is driven by a far greater need to make meaning of his personal connection with a mysterious woman at the heart of the case, and indeed, of his life. Always an advocate of reason and logic, and of fact over fiction, he finds himself grappling with the uncomfortable dawning realisation that his belief system may not be up to dealing with the most profound existential questions.
The drama peaks with an incident that threatens Milo’s life, strips away Holmes’ reserve and awakens his dormant humanity, ultimately delivering a sense of purpose that completes him. This is articulated metaphorically in a stunning closing scene that I will not spoil through elaboration, except to say that it references in a most extraordinarily moving and beautiful way an earlier flashback of Holmes walking in the blackened ruins of Hiroshima as survivors mourn and remember the dead by arranging smooth rocks in circular formations.
This is a slow-moving but absorbing and wonderfully managed film that gets all the dramatic fundamentals right. McKellen is superb as Holmes, and Milo Parker astoundingly good as his young sidekick. There’s lots of ironic meta-play for those who still get a bang out of ‘postmodernist’ goings-on (e.g. a figure of fiction denouncing the poetic license that has made him a legend, yet subsequently coming to terms with the limitations of fact and logic). But in the end, the movie works best as a portrait of a lonely old man who discovers in the nick of time that the key to the meaning of his life is the humanity he has so long denied. There is hope for everyone in that, and do we ever need it.
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