Wednesday, August 12, 2015

'Mr. Holmes' review

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most enduring characters in pop culture, having gone through multiple adaptations and interpretations since the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels. From the Steven Spielberg-produced Young Sherlock Holmes, to the revisionist TV dramas Elementary and Sherlock, to the Robert Downey Jr. film versions, Sherlock Holmes has continued to reinvent and evolve through the decades, just like Batman or Bond. The latest flick starring the famous detective to smash into theaters, Mr. Holmes, is a much different type of film compared to what we've seen in recent years. While the Downey films focus on splashy action and the TV series' put the emphasis on prickly outsiders, Mr. Holmes is a traditional look at the character as he ages into his 90's. With a terrific performance from Ian McKellen, Mr. Holmes is thematically compelling, but narratively slight. It's a film with a lot to offer, yet it moves at such a glacial place that some of that power is lost.

Mr. Holmes is the story of an aging Sherlock Holmes as he reflects on his life and de-constructs the myth that his long-time partner, John Watson, created. He's living on a farm with his caretaker, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her smart, curious son, Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes is 93 years old and is just returning from a journey to Japan where he met with a man (Hiroyuki Sanada) who wrote to him, asking the detective to journey to Japan. Holmes mostly spends time talking with Roger, tending to his bees, and writing in his room. However, he's struggling with memory issues and he's haunted by the one case that he never solved. Holmes begins to write the true story of that unsolved case, and through that journey, he discovers things about his past and the way that his choices have impacted his life over time.

I have a feeling that fans of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies and the Benedict Cumberbatch show will walk away from this movie severely disappointed. This has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but I think it would prove interesting to see the reactions of people who have enjoyed other recent Sherlock films. Mr. Holmes is much slower, and it's more methodical and complex than anything we've seen in the Sherlock universe recently. It's less about solving a specific mystery and more about peeking behind the curtain at the man who became legend. And in that respect, it succeeds at times. Mr. Holmes has some plot threads that I really liked, and some that I wasn't as involved with. It's a mixed bag, but it's efficiently made and anchored by a brilliant performance.

Ian McKellen is best known for his roles in the Lord of the Rings, Hobbit and X-Men franchises, where he brings a terrific amount of veteran skill and credibility to the bombastic action films. And I sincerely believe that without his brilliant performance, Mr. Holmes wouldn't work. I can't imagine anyone else in this role as McKellen believably portrays the wit, charm and unfortunately, the degeneration of this aging Sherlock Holmes. McKellen is only in his late 70's, but with the makeup effects and his slowed down performance, Holmes truly feels like a man at the end of his life. His chemistry with young actor Milo Parker is very good and the dynamic that he shares with Laura Linney is strong as well.

Director Bill Condon also stages the film with an effortless grace, moving the story at a leisurely pace, but never losing the audience. Mr. Holmes is a deliberately paced film and it does become very slow at times, yet there's always something there to bring you back into the story. The scenery is gorgeous and the constant shift between British countryside and Japan makes for a fresh and interesting contrast.

For me, the most compelling aspect of this film was the way that McKellen's Sherlock Holmes acknowledges that Watson had over-exaggerated many aspects of his personality in the stories. This is a film that knows the myth of Sherlock Holmes, but takes many steps to break it down and find the true spirit of the man. The pipe, the hat, the way that the murders were solved- all Watson's creative liberty according to our aging Sherlock. There's a great scene where Holmes goes to a movie theater and watches a cinematic version of one his mysteries, laughing along at all of the things that simply didn't happen. It's a very compelling theme to explore and I liked the way that Jeffrey Hatcher's script brings Holmes to a very human level.

Ultimately, Mr. Holmes loses its way a little bit because of just how many stories are being told in the film. Holmes' current state and his memory loss, his adventures in Japan, his attempt to solve the mystery that has haunted him for 30 years- all of this is packed into a relatively compact 104 minutes. All of the stories wrap together decently in the end, but for much of the film, some of it seems like filler. And the unavoidable fact is that the film runs a few minutes too long, taking a left turn into a subplot that satisfies one of the film's arcs, but still feels inconsequential.

Although some issues keep the film from being great, Mr. Holmes is decently engaging summertime drama with a very strong performance from McKellen. In its essence, this feels like an extended PBS Masterpiece theater episode, with a little bit of cinematic flair from director Bill Condon. Its shortcomings are problematic, but I didn't walk away from this film disappointed- it does what it sets out to do, and it does it in an efficient manner. And in a summer where certain films have been swept up in their own ambition, Mr. Holmes is mostly satisfying because of its human scale, and compelling, contained story.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Image Credits: Comic Book, Moviefone, Joblo, Flickering Myth

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