It feels like ages since I reviewed a movie here, although looking back it's only been about a month since the dissapointing Mockingjay Part 2. We got heavily derailed by The Hollow Crown, I guess, which is no bad thing. But it was nice to get back to it this weekend with Mr Holmes, yet another take on Sherlock Holmes, who never seems to go out of fashion, nor ways to be reinvented. Mr Holmes is an adaptation of a book called "A Slight Trick of the Mind", which I've never read, and from the outside it's looks to be a showcase for Ian McKellen and the sort of small budget awards/festival fodder that can be a little hit and miss. Thankfully, Mr Holmes is mostly hit.
There is a Mitchell and Webb sketch called "Old Holmes", in which an aged Dr Watson comes to visit and senile Holmes to play-act adventures with him, in a desperate attempt to keep some flicker of the old detective alive. It starts like farce, but the punch is at the end, when lucidity flashes to the surface, and the sketch becomes pure pathos, a one-great intellect painfully aware of the disease that has destroyed the one thing he held dearest. It's a really great sketch. Mr Holmes is a longer - and gentler - riff on this core idea, as an old and noticably fading Holmes retires to a cottage to keep bees and try and peice together the memories of his last case; the one that broke his freindship with John Watson and forced him into self-imposted retirement. A case he can no longer fully remember.
So with this framing device we get two strands of flashback to go along with it. The first is the case itself, as Holmes starts to write it all down, and the second, less connected one about a recent trip to Hiroshima (the film is set in 1947) to collect "Prickly Ash" which is supposed to guard against memory loss. Effectively we have two versions of Holmes here - a younger still brilliant Holmes, and the later, older Holmes. McKellen, it should be no surprise, is brilliant in both roles, different but strongly connected. Like all good versions of Holmes he's sharp to the point of rudeness, dazzlingly smart and witty, and yet strangely aloof and alien, with a distance even he doesn't quite understand.
As the film unfolds you realise that all these stories are really about the same thing - greif, and loss, and how deal with it, how you move forward with it. Nearly every character is driven by some great loss (a trip to Hiroshima may be a little on the nose, but it works in context) and all express it differently. Laura Linney's housekeeper puts in a performance easily the match of McKellens, a mess of quiet and stoic emotion, a character I felt for more than perhaps any other in a cast of characters the film wants you to feel for.
It feels like Mr Holmes skirted the edge of being a real tear jerker several times in it's run, and looking back I'm not quite sure why it isn't. It certainly has all the components, including a gentle, but deep pacing that sucks you in without being heavy handed or cloying. Maybe it's that it's cathartic final "crisis" doesn't quite stick; there wasn't really a sense it was that sort of film, so the structure around the on-screen events was comforting. A darker ending would have been a geniune shock, and whilst I really liked the ending, it leaves the film strangely edge-less. I think that's it intent, of course- it's lovely in nearly every respect, and I don't want to make that a criticism. It's a great "last story" for Holmes, and well worth seeing.