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Mr. Holmes

D: Bill Condon / 104m

Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Porter, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Philip Davis, John Sessions

In 1947, Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93, lives in a Sussex farmhouse, and is looked after by his housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Linney), and her young son, Roger (Porter). He keeps bees and uses royal jelly as a means of improving his memory, which has deteriorated in recent years. A recent trip to Japan in search of supplies of prickly ash, a plant also known for improving the memory, has been undertaken with a view to ensuring that Holmes can complete one last project before he becomes unable to: to write a true account of his last case as a detective. Unhappy with the way Dr Watson portrayed those events, Holmes is struggling to remember the details of the case. Urged on by the interest shown by Roger, Holmes renews his efforts to pin them down.

His recollections take him back thirty years, after Watson has gotten married and their partnership has dissolved. He’s visited by Thomas Kelmot (Kennedy), a man worried about the behaviour of his wife, Ann (Morahan). Following two miscarriages, Ann Kelmot has become withdrawn; her husband has advised her to take up a musical hobby but now that has become an obsession, and even though he has forbade her from continuing her lessons with glass harmonica teacher, Madame Schirmer (de la Tour), he has discovered Ann is still visiting her. He suspects the music teacher of some kind of plot and wants Holmes to investigate.

Back in the present, Holmes takes Roger under his wing in and introduces him to his apiary. Roger persists in asking about Holmes’ last case; his enthusiasm prompts Holmes to make more of an effort to remember Ann Kelmot, including following her to Madame Schirmer’s and from there to various places before he approaches her in a public garden. Their conversation becomes confrontational but Holmes reveals the depth of his knowledge about her situation, and the effect the two miscarriages has had on her.

Mrs Munro, meanwhile, informs Holmes that she is planning to move to Portsmouth and work in a hotel; it will mean taking Roger with her. Roger doesn’t want to go, but when Holmes suffers a collapse shortly after, they are forced to stay. While he remains bedridden on the advice of his doctor (Allam), Roger takes care of the bees. He also finds a grey glove in Holmes’ study, a memento from the case of Ann Kelmot that Holmes can’t remember keeping or having. As Holmes remembers more about the case he also recalls the event that led to his retirement as a detective, and the reasons behind Watson’s subsequent involvement. But his remembrance of the past is put into perspective when he finds Roger has been stung by dozens of bees, and the boy’s life is hanging in the balance…

Mr. Holmes - scene

Dealing with themes of sadness and loss and regret, Mr. Holmes presents us with a portrait of a master detective beset by echoes from his past. It’s a richly detailed depiction of times long past, anchored by a superb performance from McKellen, and redolent of a bygone age, with its frock coats and steam trains and pre-suffrage gender politics. Expertly marshalled by Condon – reunited with McKellen for the first time since they collaborated on Gods and Monsters (1998) – the movie is a flawless recreation of two periods in English history that still exert a strong fascination: the post-Victorian era and the years immediately following the cessation of World War II. There’s also Holmes’ trip to Japan and the sight of the devastation wrought on Hiroshima. The historical trappings carry so much weight it’s almost as if the audience has been transported back with Holmes and are experiencing things themselves.

With the period detail proving so effective, it’s the twin mysteries on offer – what really happened during Holmes’ last case, and what is causing the deaths of his beloved bees – that unfortunately stop the movie from becoming even more memorable (an ironic outcome for a movie that deals with the loss and despair in losing one’s own memory). The story of Ann Kelmot has all the initial hallmarks of a classic Holmes tale, with its anxious husband and a heroine seemingly under the influence of a scheming criminal. But the truth, when Holmes finally remembers it, is far more prosaic than that, and while presented with some emotional impact, still doesn’t seem as devastating as Holmes makes out. Maybe it’s seeing it from the perspective of an old man trying to make sense of things that remain just out of reach that leaves the viewer with a sense of detachment: if Holmes can’t access those recollections and connect with them, how are we to do so?

But the movie, even with its handful of slightly underdeveloped storylines, has several aces up its sleeve that mitigate and make up for the paucity of the plot and the general structure. These are the performances from McKellen, Linney, Porter and Morahan. As already mentioned, McKellen is superb as Holmes, fragile, distressed, playful, curmudgeonly, afraid – tuning his portrayal of the master detective to such a fine degree that it’s both an acting and organic masterclass; he’s believable and convincing throughout, particularly when he’s trying to downplay the public misconceptions about him that are thanks to Watson’s writings. As Holmes’ housekeeper, Linney adopts a country dialect with precision and aplomb, and imbues Mrs Munro with a stoic dignity that stops her from expressing her misgivings about the relationship between Holmes and her son. As Roger, Porter gives another of those naturalistic, not-even-trying performances that it seems most child actors can produce at the drop of a hat; his scenes with McKellen are affecting and perfectly modulated. And as the focus of Holmes’ disturbed memories, Morahan is quietly magnificent as the troubled Ann Kelmot, her tear-rimmed eyes a more than adequate depiction of the turmoil her character has fallen prey to.

The movie has an often stately, measured pace, and some viewers may find the early scenes a little hard going, but once Holmes begins to remember events following the arrival of Thomas Kelmot at Baker Street, Condon increases the rate at which things begin to happen, until the final thirty minutes are as engrossing as any modern day thriller. With Martin Childs’ meticulous production design being augmented by often beautiful cinematography from Tobias A. Schliessler, and a delicately evocative score courtesy of Carter Burwell, there’s so much to enjoy here that audiences who stay the course will be rewarded by a movie that quietly steals up behind them and warms their hearts.

Rating: 8/10 – modest in intention and design, Mr. Holmes is a small-scale triumph of historical veracity and emotional honesty, focusing as it does on the melancholic suffering of a man for whom his intellect, now foundering, defined him; full of deceptively powerful performances, this is one historical drama that resonates long after it’s ended.