Movie Review: Mr. Holmes
By Ben Gruchow
July 22, 2015

Look out! He's wearing his murder gloves.

Mr. Holmes tells a slight but engaging mystery that acts as a cover for a much more interesting story about isolation and abandonment. Having explored this deeper story for the first two acts, the film takes a left turn into a needless plot development in the third, one that allows a good amount of the energy and tension of the story to dissipate. It is a good film that could have been a great one. Still, the gentle humanism on display - mixed with a deftness of touch by director Bill Condon - is something, and we can be grateful for a quietly assured work of craftsmanship this summer.

Much of the film’s success rests on two performances, one good and one great. Ian McKellen plays Detective Sherlock Holmes, known by name from novels and screen appearances, now long past retirement age and driven to write his own story to rectify what he sees as excessive creative license. This is the good performance. With the aid of some minor makeup effects, McKellen convincingly plays subtle shades of Holmes across three different time periods. His performance in the first two time periods - 1930s London and post-Hiroshima Japan - is what you would expect out of him: studied, eloquent, perceptive.

Condon directs from a screenplay written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based off of the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. Hatcher’s background is in theater, and the filmed result bears the fingerprints of the writer in its theatrical staging (most of the present-day material takes place in a remote house, and most of that within two rooms), and the director in its unhurried, almost stately rhythm, with a respectable and even laudable directness in presenting both incident and motivation. Condon’s skill with creating an identity for his films while avoiding fussiness can’t be denied; the downside of this directness is that the story tends to just move from point A to point B, rather than build or tighten or tense up. Carefully anonymous cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler, creating an authentic and lovely cinematic environment out of coastal Sussex and 1930s London without ever really framing a scene or shot that sticks in the memory, aids in both the upsides and downsides of what Condon has put across here.

Against this backdrop, we have a third performance by the 76-year-old McKellen as a 93-year-old Holmes in the present day, one that is startling in its technical authenticity without being much more than a performance. This is not to say that McKellen coasts in this aspect; nothing could be farther from the truth. He acts the living hell out of a role that is written to communicate certain feelings at certain intervals, but doesn’t develop much beyond that. There’s a moment in the film where the 93-year-old Holmes declares that he doesn’t remember a key part of his past. The line is simple and well-delivered, but unnecessary with an actor as expressive as McKellen. This kind of delivery is completely a byproduct of a theatrical sensibility, and (given the same actor and story) would work like gangbusters on the stage. It’s overselling it on the screen.

Still, though, he’s a sight to behold: prickly, eyes vacant on the surface but constantly moving and assessing underneath, with a variation on his younger speaking voice that changes very little but sells the passing of time wonderfully, the way he reacts to surprise and anger and fear with a unsettling unpredictability. This is a fine actor at the top of his form, tap-dancing all over the idea of using complicated makeup and digital voice work to convey old age.

The great performance in Mr. Holmes, though, comes from Laura Linney as Mrs. Munro, Holmes’ housekeeper-turned-nurse. Linney is only in something like 20 minutes of the film; her appearances are mostly brief and usually happen in the context of another scene. Yet within that small allotment of time, she communicates years’ worth of character. Her performance is full of small tics and glances and tightening expressions; she uses the smallest of subtleties to convey a woman who clearly intended more for herself and her son Roger (Milo Parker) than caring for an individual who diminishes and exiles her by virtue of his education and perceptive abilities.

I will not go into more depth as far as Linney’s performance, partly because I’m not sure I could. She’s too shortchanged by the actions of her character in the movie’s third act for me to call it a career-best performance, but it’s up there. She absolutely owns the screen whenever she’s on it - and since she’s usually sharing that screen with McKellen, that’s saying something. Parker, as her son Roger, serves as a sort of anchor to Holmes and as a conduit between the two actors. He acquits himself well and has an easy chemistry with McKellen and a convincing presence as a son to Mrs. Munro. He also just about fades into the wallpaper once the two adults are in the room.

The other important figures in the story are Ann Kelmot, played by Hattie Morahan, and Matsuda Umezaki, played by Hiroyuki Sanada. Respectively, they are Holmes’ subjects in the 1930s (the wife at the center of the film’s mystery, which incidentally paves the way for a delightful cameo by Frances de la Tour) and post-war-Hiroshima (part of a quest to retrieve a plant that may improve Holmes’ failing memory) time periods. They’re fine, really - Morahan brings a nice melancholy to her one major scene with Holmes; Sanada is serviceable, perhaps the most utilitarian link in the cast - but their contribution to this film is to execute formal story beats while laying the groundwork for a theme about emotional pain and regret that arrives from attempting to correct past mistakes.

There is a deeper development of this theme at work during the movie’s first two acts, one that involves the human collateral from these mistakes, and it’s this one that gets left by the side of the road when Mr. Holmes enters its third act. To develop this theme to its logical conclusion - and every single fiber of the movie’s being in the present day wants to make that conclusion - could have resulted in a great film. What we are given as the movie winds toward its close is not a cheat, or insulting, or inappropriate; it is merely sufficient, and we are left with the feeling that the material deserved better. Mr. Holmes is a fine showcase for talented actors, warm and intelligent in its storytelling, and it is well worth the ticket price on those merits. It’s good enough, in other words, to be able to feel a little wistful for how much more it could have been.