Mr Holmes



By Martin Hickes

THERE’s a danger that, a little like James Bond, Sherlock Holmes – cinema’s most depicted hero  - might wholly outgrow himself beyond his original creation.

The milepost of Ian Fleming’s last novel was long passed some time ago, and Conan Doyle’s stories have largely been exhausted over the years.

Even in the days of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, many of the screenplays transplanted the pair into WWII, paying little heed to the original stories. Likewise, Goldeneye was, arguably, the last true Fleming adaptation, as good as the post-Fleming Bond stories have been.

And while TV’s Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, has some echoes of the Conan Doyle canon, they are very freely based on such, focussing instead on the nuances of character.

In the absence of original material, how refreshing then to see this new adaption which is probably unique in that it depicts a 93-year-old Holmes, who has long since retired to keep bees on the South Coast; at least this aspect is faithful to the original stories.

But fans of the Conan Doyle canon need not be worried.

While the story is wholly new, it has enough twists and turns to satisfy the most die-hard of old fans.

It also adroitly gives a nod and wink to those cinemagoers who know their Holmesian facts, by throwing them the occasional clever intellectual morsel to savour; not only a means of showing that the director and screenwriter know their stuff, but also to help viewers make the leap into 1940s Britain.

Holmes is a troubled man, living along with an exasperated housekeeper and her son, and showing signs of dementia and old age.

Watson is long gone, as is Mycroft, but Holmes consoles himself by tending his apiary (bee-hive), and by befriending Roger, the young son of his housekeeper. The trio share an old farmhouse overlooking the Channel and the smogs and fogs of Baker Street are far away, both physically and temporally.

Roger soon encourages his erstwhile detective svengali to employ his science of deduction – familiar to all by now, surely, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘mind palace’  etc. – and the kindly if forgetful Holmes tries to encourage the boy to use his (Holmes’s) deductive powers.

Travelling to Japan to find a cure for his forgetfulness, in the shape of the root of the Prickly Ash, found growing in the ash craters of the atom bomb at Hiroshima, Holmes is slowly reminded of his last case and why he came to retire to the South in the first place.

Encouraged to write the memoir by Roger, Holmes hazily begins to recall the case – jotting down notes, this time without the aid of Watson. But shockingly, as each synapse of memory returns, he finds himself walking into a nightmare of remembrance – and slowly realises why he had to leave London. The rest is for the viewer to unravel.

Witnessing such is a little like seeing the fog of the past slowly dissolve in the sunshine of the present day reality (albeit the 1940s), both on the face of the marvellous Ian McKellen – who looks deliberately aged – and in the minds of the audience.

Holmes’s progressive dementia is such that he struggles to put names to faces, though the further back in time he goes in his mind, the clearer things become.

In Mr Holmes, Holmes’s celebrity has become such - thanks to Watson’s biographies - that movies have been made of his exploits (just as in ‘our’ world) , and at one stage, he even goes to see the movie of the case he is trying to recall – or at least Watson’s embellished version of it – to try to re-evoke what it was that both engaged him so, and that which also caused him to seek solitude.

Only finding part of the answer in the cinema depiction – a clever use of the tale within the tale – he solicits the help of Roger to help him with his aide-memoire.

What, arguably, underlines the success of all the numerous Holmes adaptations – from Rathbone, to Brett, to Cumberbatch, Hammer’s Peter Cushing and the knock-about Robert Downey Jr, is the appeal of the eponymous character’s sharp intellect and detective reasoning, combined with his aloof but rock-solid moral personality.

Holmes as a character might seem distant, almost sinister, but to cinema audiences he remains both inscrutable,  but above all, dependable. His reason may seem cold but  - like any good superhero or antihero – he (and Watson) are always there just when you need them; and you can’t fault their sense of  that which is simply right.

And it’s this redeeming quality which shines through even with a nonagenarian Holmes – and which appeals to young Roger – and indeed to us, the audience.

Sir Ian McKellen’s acting credentials are beyond question – but here he is an engagingly older Holmes who can still thrill an audience with a sharpness of deduction when he so wishes. Laura Linney and Milo Parker also play tremendous supports.

If you are not a Holmes purist, the plot is engaging enough to keep you guessing over 100 mins; while Holmes aficionados will take gentle delight from the subtle twists of this intelligently watchable film, which remains true to the values of the original Conan Doyle stories. The director is Bill Condon. The game, if a little slight this time around, is still cleverly afoot.