Sydney Film Festival Review: Mr Holmes (UK/USA, 2015)

Mysteries and detective stories have long been popular in literature, arts, films, with the story of Sherlock Holmes long enduring time and remake after reboot after re-imagining. In Mr Holmes we take a look at the world’s greatest detective in his twilight years long since retired but still troubled by one unsolved case.

Sherlock Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen) has long since retired from being a detective, and is now living a life of solitude, tending to his bees and apiary in a remote Sussex cottage house with just his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) to assist him. His memory is beginning to fail him but pieces and fragments of an unsolved case from his past haunt him. With the encouragement of Roger, Holmes decides to try to solve this one last mystery.

Director Bill Condon (Gods And Monsters, Dreamgirls) has adapted the novel ‘A Slight Trick Of The Mind’ by Mitch Cullin for this film with some help from screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher. With a little creative licence and imagination we are to believe that Sherlock Holmes is a real man who is growing old and feeble but that on occasion his mind is still sharp enough to observe the smallest detail and make deductions like he did in his prime. McKellen is mesmerising to watch as the crotchety, grumbly old detective who is tired of the world and frustrated that his beautiful mind is failing him. Condon and cinematographer Tobias A Schliessler make use of McKellen’s face in many tight close ups where the slightest twitch under his eye conveys so much. There have been many fan based theories regarding Holmes’ behaviour that perhaps he had Asperger’s and that was one of the reasons he was emotionally so detached. But in this film we see him giving in to those emotions conceding that it has a place alongside his logic and reasoning.

The supporting cast in Laura Linney and particularly Milo Parker are both strong. Linney plays widowed mother Mrs Munro struggling to support her son and determined to give him a better life. Repeatedly butting heads with Holmes, both are too stubborn to realise that they need each other not just for physical assistance but emotional too. Young Milo Parker is a real treat to watch as Roger enamoured by the old Holmes, and in desperate need of a father figure. Holmes is firm but fair with the young boy, always talking to him like an adult rather than a child and their bond is touching. Brief appearances by Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Roger Allam and Phil Davies also help to round out the cast and provide some interesting characters see pop into the story as it progresses and expands.

The film snaps back and forth between Holmes in the present, to the Holmes of the past as he tries desperately to remember details about the unsolved case. Visually Schliessler has captured this period of time beautifully, contrasting the peaceful 1947 Sussex countryside against the bustling London of 30 years earlier or Japan just after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. With some wonderfully understated costuming by Keith Madden and period detail by production designer Martin Childs. This is a very British production with a very British feel. There are even the occasional nods to the more recent BBC Steven Moffatt/Mark Gatiss/Sue Vertue production in that this Holmes and that of the Benedict Cumberbatch variety both harbour resentment to John Watson’s writings and portrayal in the published works, as well as loathing that damn deerstalker hat.

The narrative can be a little confusing to follow at first because of the jumps in time, but as these separate individual stories start to come together, the larger picture begins to take shape. Even though I also managed to work out what the outcome was to be for this mystery case, I believe the intention was not that we were supposed to solve the mystery but to understand the emotions behind it all that were in the end the cause and effect of Holmes’ memory loss.

It’s not hard to believe that a man and mind as great as his would be frustrated as he begins to lose his faculties. It also would not be hard for us to see that it’s possible for a man to change his ways, and accept that emotions play a part in our lives. Mr Holmes is a fascinating imagining of the Sherlock Holmes story, giving the character of Holmes a far more realistic and believable portrayal all of which is carried masterfully and perfectly by Sir Ian McKellen.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 103 minutes

Mr Holmes screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival with one final screening on Saturday 13 June, for more info or to purchase tickets click here.

Mr Holmes will screen in Australian cinemas from 23 July 2015 through Transmission Films