Director: Bill Condon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I’ve been lately reading the works of Jonathan Swift and commentary thereon, a man whose self-written epitaph (“Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift … where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart.”) proclaimed his vigorous engagement with human suffering. A Protestant minister and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, Swift’s works cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of his belief in the doctrine of original sin, which was weakened by the growing ascendancy of Protestant rationalism, and his attempt to restore through his writings a vision of human nature as corrupt, licentious, and irrational, and in need of religious instruction and redemption.
Now having viewed Mr. Holmes, I am tempted to think that Mitch Cullin, the writer of the novel on which it is based, may be a revivalist, though of a much milder temperament, in the Swiftian mold. He chose Sherlock Holmes, the proto-machine man representing the triumph of the just-completed Industrial Revolution and embellished upon thereafter to reach the near-android superman we see in many depictions today, to spin an emotional tale of human flaw, guilt, and redemption. Despite the current, apparent return of preindustrial religion, deities and their emissaries are decidedly out of fashion in pop culture as redeemers. Instead, it is women who die for men’s sins. So it is even for Sherlock Holmes, a man who needs women like a fish needs a bicycle.
Machines, even well-built, reliable ones, need maintenance and invariably break down after long years of service. Thus, the Mr. Holmes in this emotion-laden story set in 1947 must needs be old, indeed, 93 years old to malfunction in the manner required by the story. But before we can prepare ourselves for his diminished capacity, we must know that we really are dealing with Sherlock Holmes. We first meet him (Ian McKellen) on a train clutching a furoshiki-wrapped box from his recent trip to Japan. A lad is watching an insect buzzing near the window and is just about to rap on the glass when Holmes tells him not to. Like all those stunned by Holmes’ prescient abilities, the boy asks how Holmes knew he was going to do that. The boy’s mother interjects rather unhelpfully, “He loves bees.” Holmes replies scornfully, “It’s not a bee, it’s a wasp. Entirely different thing.”
As later Holmes scribe H.F. Heard envisioned, Holmes, no longer a sherlock, lives in quiet isolation near the White Cliffs of Dover, where he tends bees. He is tended to by the latest in a series of housekeepers, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, and her 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). He greets his bees, disturbed to note that some are dead, and tells Mrs. Munro that he wants her to put a tincture of prickly ash—the contents of his box—in his food. Having found royal jelly unable to restore his seriously faulty memory, he has brought the plant back from Japan in hopes that it will do the trick. Indeed, he has written a monograph on the two substances, which we see in flashback handed to him by his host in Japan, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), for his autograph.
The more important flashback Holmes seeks is to his last case, the one that caused him to retire 30 years earlier. The now-dead Dr. Watson wrote it up as “The Lady in Grey,” but Holmes is convinced that John got it wrong. He decides to write his own account of the case to set the record straight and set his mind at ease, but that is easier said than done. In dreams and free associations, bits and pieces of the case come back to him, but large chunks remain utter blanks. Roger, his own memories of his father manufactured by photos of them together when he was a toddler, joins Holmes on his quest to save the bees and finish his story.
We are told again and again that the Sherlock Holmes of fame and fortune bears little resemblance to the real man; he never wore a deerstalker, avoids smoking a pipe because it would be unseemly for the real Holmes to seem to be “dressing up” as the fictional Holmes, and lived at another Baker St. address. Presumably, the image of him as an emotionless deducer of facts is incorrect as well, because McKellen’s Holmes is very grandfatherly toward Roger, a bright child Holmes begins instructing in the ways of bees and deductive reasoning, and feeling a vague guilt about his last case that he needs to resolve before he dies.
The only problem with recreating a fictional character, especially one as iconic as Sherlock Holmes, is that there is no real Holmes at all to provide with a “corrective.” It all becomes so meta—and Mr. Holmes takes this to the nth degree by showing Holmes attending a hokey movie version of “The Lady in Grey” and laughing at the movie Holmes, played by Nicholas Rowe, star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)—that our impulse is to reject this latest iteration, however more realistic it may be to the life of a very elderly, well-off man. Do any of us really want a touchy-feely Holmes?
Condon and his cadre of screenwriters, including Cullin, do what they can to offer us helpings of the investigative Holmes, but they aren’t very nourishing. We guess that Holmes suspects something is not right with Mr. Umezaki when Condon’s camera lingers on the monograph’s inside cover just a little too long. Dips into the past, as the last case slowly rises from the fog of memory, show Holmes merely following the lady in grey, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), around until he easily deduces from the information he obtained from his client, her husband Thomas (Patrick Kennedy), what she’s up to. At the same time, it should not have been hard for Holmes to figure out what was happening to the bees, and the fact that he doesn’t opens the door for a melodramatic crisis that would not have been out of place in the movie’s version of “The Lady in Grey,” giving McKellen’s Holmes a chance to get overwrought and Linney to scream “I’m his mother!” at the childless, wifeless old coot.
It was a nice touch to walk Holmes around postwar Japan, with its mix of G.I.s and women in Western and traditional garb alike. A visit to the charred remains of Hiroshima, where Umezaki found the prickly ash, is too conveniently and offensively set up as another marker of Holmes’ personal growth. Holmes’ harshness with Umezaki is much more in character and forms one of the more effective scenes in the film. In addition, charred Hiroshima, like the rest of the film, looks simply too calculatedly designed to attract rather than repel. The film is altogether too pretty, evoking a tasteful Masterpiece Theatre bauble for transfer to the small screen that one of its coproducers, BBC Films, no doubt intends.
Parker, as a pint-size sidekick, is pretty appealing as he absorbs everything this old genius has to offer and becomes a bit too full of himself in the process. McKellen produces an indelible portrait of a man on the brink of death, his infirmities etched in painful detail, aided by some exquisitely realistic age make-up, though I was distracted trying to decide if the liver spots on his scalp were real. Alas, Linney’s role is pallid, and even her considerable skills cannot make a silk purse out of it. Poor Frances de la Tour has to play the standard-issue gypsy role of Madame Schirmer, who teaches the exotically outdated glass harmonica. Only Morahan is able to infuse her Christlike character with some complexity, making it almost believable that Holmes would carry an odd mix of eros and moral culpability around with him for so long. Sadly, Mr. Holmes has taken a powerfully evocative character and neutered him in an attempt to show that men are people, too. Mr. Swift would not have approved.