Sunday, 20 December 2015

Mr. Holmes (2015) - Movie Review
Time to look at another legendary British character that, for one reason or another, has taken a stronghold in the cultural mindset. Sure, he may not be as influential as the tuxedoed ladykiller 007, but put on a deerstalker, a pipe and say the word “elementary” and you’ll doubtless find someone who will immediately point to the Baker Street resident Sherlock Holmes. However, instead of all of the elements attached to a character like James Bond, Holmes only has a few specific calling cards to his name: His connection to his dear Watson (god, Tumblr has given that phrase a whole meaning since Moffatt took over), the Baker Street Irregulars that serve as his eyes and ears and, of course, his coldly analytical approach that has given him a reputation for being one of the more intelligent fictional minds. Well, time to see if he is still just as entertaining when that same brilliant mind has been dulled by the effects of ageing.

The plot: Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) retired years earlier, having taken to a simpler existence tending his bees as his memory continues to ebb away from him. However, after taking umbrage with how Watson (Colin Starkey) depicted his final case, he decides to write down the events as they truly happened… that is, if he can actually recall them.  As he grows closer to young Roger (Milo Parker), the son of his caretaker Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), he starts to recollect what took place and, ultimately, what made him decide to retire in the first place.

Portraying a character renowned for his mental dexterity as an old man going senile is an exceptionally tricky move. You could run the risk of demeaning the character and losing grip with what made him so iconic in the first place, turning Britain’s greatest detective into another rendition of the fun grandpa. Thankfully, this film shows a ton of respect for both its literary origins and the character’s integrity. A large contributor to how well this turns out is Ian McKellen, who does a tremendous service with his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. He still maintains the hyper-analytical nature of his younger counterparts, knowing full character profiles at a single glance, but balances that out with him trying to turn that same attitude towards the growing mystery that is his own recollections of his past. Not only is does he look more than capable of still being that intellectually sharp, given how wizened he looks, he also pulls off the dramatic moments with serious intensity; it’s like machine-gun tears with how well he does in the heavier scenes.

The core mystery, both in flashback and with Holmes sorting through his own memories, isn’t the kind of brain-crappingly clever progression that the franchise is best known for. Instead, it aims more for pathos through its more personal look at Holmes, the people involved in the case and how it all plays into his interactions with Roger and his mother. This is a bit off-putting at first, as the way Holmes goes about investigating Ann shows a pretty evident lack of subtlety. It’s at the point where his age isn’t a sufficient enough reason for why he is employing tactics usually used by high-schoolers spying on their crush to learn more about them. However, this is very much a case of substance over style, as what this lacks in swishy finesse, it makes up for a deft hand at emotion. Through both McKellen’s performance and Jeffrey Hatcher’s script, we feel the desperation on Holmes’ part to remember what happened that would make him give up the job he was clearly born to do. Not only that, Ann’s despair is portrayed in a very unflinching way that just grips the heart for dear life, Roger’s connection with Holmes shows more maturity than the usual stories that involve a kinship between a kid and a senior citizen and Mrs. Munro, while a bit harsh in her attitudes towards Holmes, gets a decent arc progression that makes it all worth sitting through.

Given the numerous incarnations the character has gone through over the last several decades, going the Old Man Holmes direction seems like a natural step to take. Then you take into account the two most recent iterations of the character: Both of them in the modern day and, to varying degrees, focus on rather photogenic casting. Now, I have admittedly only seen one of the two TV iterations of the character currently running: Sherlock is easily one of my favourite TV shows of all time and Elementary… yeah, I have never and will never be able to trust the U.S. adapting primarily and proudly British characters; as such, I’ve never watched it.

This film takes a metafictional look at the character’s legacy through Holmes reacting to the novels Watson wrote of their adventures and the subsequent adaptations that have been made of them. Probably the funniest moment of the entire film is watching Sherlock Holmes watch Sherlock Holmes at a movie theatre, in an awesome send-up of the cheesy 30’s-40’s movies. Bonus points for having the actor portraying Sherlock in the film-within-a-film be Nicholas Rowe, who also portrayed Young Sherlock Holmes in the titular film. Through the liberties that Watson took with the actual events, like the hat and pipe that people keep expecting him to have, we see Holmes have a rather bizarre disconnect from himself in the eyes of the general public while also having that disconnect because he can’t even remember the details of the original cases.

With these remarkably clever touches, we get a refreshing look at the idea of legacy characters and how the general idea of showing an older and frailer detective shouldn’t be shied away from. I would normally file this along with other films that spend more time than they need to justifying their own existence, except there is legitimate reason to do so especially in today’s cinematic landscape. One of the big problems that comes up when people generally watch a remake/reboot/follow-up/rip-off/re-imagining/whatever other buzz word is suitable of a property that they like is that it almost has to be compared to the original. However, a lot of those same people get hung up on the fact that the new film is different from the character that they are familiar, rather than how well it’s carried out. I remember back when the most recent Fantastic Four film was in the marketing stage and everyone was losing their minds over how the Human Torch was being played by a black guy. Of course, once it came out, audiences quickly realized everything else that was wrong with it, but that was a legitimate issue for some people. As much as they hated the Tim Story films, they were still attached to the idea of someone like Chris Evans playing the character and weren’t willing to let another ethnicity try it.

Here, we see that even with all the changes that may come, and the utter crap that come out of it, none of it changes what the character is. It’s like the regenerations in Doctor Who: Different look, shifted priorities, but still the same person underneath. Am I saying that people don’t have a right to feel betrayed when a character gets misrepresented? Hell no! I’m still pissed at how Deadpool was mistreated in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and am so happy that we’re getting a real depiction of the character in his film soon. I’m just saying that we should reserve our hate for when people get the idea dead wrong, not just because they did it differently. The film’s overall sentiment about adaptations and literary continuations is very admirable, which is surprising given how this is the same director who gave us both parts of Twilight: Breaking Dawn.

All in all, this is a highly effective take on the character, aided by outstanding acting and surprisingly deft direction at the hands of Bill Condon. It takes an overall look at Holmes, his legacy, his previous incarnations and just what it would take to affect him as much as we find in this film. Ian McKellen adds another notch to his belt with his amazing turn as the titular character and, somehow, I find myself actively looking forward to his upcoming take on Beauty & The Beast based on how this great this turned out.

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