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Mr. Holmes (Bill Condon – 2015) Movie Review [Sydney Film Festival]

When an ageing Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) retires to his country retreat, he must battle the encroaching cloud of dementia to piece together the clues of his haunting final case.

Director Bill Condon is always a much better director of performance than space or landscape. Despite the setting being in full view of the ruggedly beautiful English coastline, and the iconic white cliffs of Dover, Condon keeps the action coddled, either in the cottage or in the slippery flashbacks that Sherlock is configuring into a linear timeline. After something like Calvary where the landscape reflected, informed or dwarfed the characters, you yearned for the sublime vastness of the ocean to be a Harry Potter “pensive” for Holmes, echoing the same frustrating strands of memory into madness. It may be that we’ve been spoilt with some pretty spectacular recent televisual adaptions of the character; but Mr Holmes feels of about the same level of production quality of any one of the episodes of BBC’s Sherlock.

If there’s one thing that never fails to infuriate in any Sherlock Holmes text; it’s the ease with which he’s able to recover after being in a situation where he appears to have been completely outmatched. Let me qualify, that I’m not talking about times that Sherlock is actually keeping his schemes close to his chest and begins orchestrating an extremely long game in the ultimate thwarting of a villain, perhaps more that after simply not being able to figure out an investigation that the final convenient clue emerges. In the case of Mr Holmes, the device of his own mind failing (drawn from the great premise of Mitch Cullin’s novel) seems to be the ultimate (leaving the penultimate for Moriarty) foe for Holmes. A lot of work has been done in the film to show the excruciating lengths that Mr Holmes (McKellen) must go through to stick together the fleeting images and sense memory of this source of discontent. However the final act of the film seems to effortlessly dismantle those mental roadblocks, like a Panzer tank thought cobwebs. Writer Jeffrey Hatcher may very well have been honouring the novel from which the film was based, but nonetheless it felt all too easy.

Hattie Morahan’s Ann Kelmot is like a living wraith, bearing the weight of tragedy in every moment she’s on screen. Hiroyuki Sanada brings a huge amount of gravitas to Tamiki Umezaki, a subplot character that is all but forgettable aside from that fact it’s portrayed by someone so wonderful. Laura Linney’s Mrs. Munro is does a solid Welsh accent but it felt like an impression of three different Downton Abbey characters. Linney’s at her most powerful when she can quietly menace; a quaint housemaid didn’t deserve her (see Mystic River).

Milo Parker’s Roger is a lovely addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon because he begins to fill the shoes of protégé. Instead of Mr Holmes shaking off Roger as an annoyance, his declining state makes him more open to share what’s left of his knowledge to this young ward sponging it all in. It’s beautiful to see that Mr Holmes is able to lower some of those fortifications to people.

And of course, it goes without saying that Sir Ian McKellen was absolutely wonderful adding yet another canonical character to life. McKellen’s Mr Holmes most definitely has that characteristic stern and aloof air that’s so essential to how we’ve come to perceive Sherlock. However, that’s almost all reserved for his flashbacks to his last suite of investigations. What’s nice is to have that kind of reflexive nature playing against the vulnerability of not being able to wield his razor sharp mind in the same way he had for his earlier life. McKellen makes you yearn that someone in the BBC has ear marked him for a more goes at the aged Sherlock, he’s a delight.

Mr Holmes should have been incredible but instead it was just ordinary. And I’m not sure how hard you realise it was NOT to use an ‘elementary’ pun. 

Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher (based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Laura Linney, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Hiroyuki Sanada

Ian McKellen … Sherlock Holmes
Milo Parker … Roger
Laura Linney … Mrs. Munro
Hattie Morahan … Ann Kelmot
Patrick Kennedy … Thomas Kelmot
Hiroyuki Sanada … Tamiki Umezaki

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