Mr Holmes

(M) Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker

Based on the Mitch Cullin novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mr Holmes offers a rare glimpse into the life of an ageing legend.

Set in post-WWII England, Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has retired to the country. In the beautiful landscape of Sussex, he cares for his beloved bees and is cared for by his housekeeper(Laura Linney) and her determined and investigative son, Roger (Milo Parker). As Mr. Holmes attempts to rectify the fictitious portrayal of his life that has been successfully published and promoted by Dr Watson, he wrestles with the challenges of growing old and coming to terms with his final case.

Having previously worked together on Gods and Monsters, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and McKellen collaborate on an intriguing mystery that involves retrieving the facts of the past in the fading memory of an old detective.At a recent dinner party, I described the premise of Mr. Holmes to a friend. Since it did not include any CGI effects or explosions, the fog of disinterest swept across his eyes. That’s unfortunate for him because, among the cinematic landscape of the season, this film is a breath of fresh air. Director Condon has created a wonderfully crafted story and a beautiful cinematic backdrop to unlikely discussion points.

Let’s face it: Sherlock Holmes is an overly used character on screen. In the past few years alone, we’ve seen him played at cinemas by Robert Downey Jr, and on television by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. But Condon has ageing hero Holmes engaged with determining the fine line between fact and fiction, as well as the value of the elderly. These topics may not get the average movie fan out of their seat on a Friday night, but they are woven together beautifully in a character-driven film of relationships and mystery. A rich and meaningful relational portrait is given to Holmes’ mentorship of young Roger, who is a fledgling sleuth and fellow bee keeper. Also, Condon seems to take joy in dismantling the mythology of the legend, as he demystifies every fictitious device that Watson has added into the character of Sherlock Holmes. 

Condon continues to show his ability to provide fresh vision for story and characters. His only directing weakness is the timeline continuance. There are three different timelines to consider and they can get a bit muddled, but it does not detract from the overall experience. Ultimately, he is able to effectively portray the past and the present, and allow McKellen to develop Holmes into an original and appealing depiction of the master sleuth

Like Best Picture winner Birdman, the audience has to come to terms with the notion of the ageing hero during Mr Holmes. But are the heroes of folklore and legend really allowed to age? Sherlock Holmes’ cerebral abilities are unsurpassed in modern mythology and to consider him losing his mental faculties is, at first, disconcerting. But it becomes endearing. Holmes’ realisation of his own weaknesses and dependence on those around him opens fresh territory for this character and provides a humanity that is difficult to see in most of the portraits of the detective.

Mr. Holmes is an entertaining and thought-provoking film that provides an oasis in the desert plain of blockbusters and sequels this season.

What are the bigger questions to consider from this film?

1. Is life a mystery? (Colossians 2:1-3, 1 Timothy 3:16)
2. Why do we have to age? (Genesis 3, Ecclesiastes)

3. What value are the elderly in our society? (Proverbs 16:31, Job 12:12)

Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger

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