Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

By Ben Gruchow

July 22, 2015

Look out! He's wearing his murder gloves.

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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.

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