Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: Mr. Holmes (2015)

The Distinguished Speaker Lecture during the most recent Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) Weekend in New York City featured Jeffrey Hatcher, the screenwriter for the 2015 film “Mr. Holmes.” Hatcher was erudite and funny, witty and insightful. On the other hand, I committed an egregious error – I forgot to bring my notebook. For those who know me well, this is akin to my walking into the Midtown Executive Club without trousers. The lapse in my memory caused by the flurry of new activity and unfamiliar surroundings, perhaps? Nevertheless, the lecture was one of the most enriching experiences of the weekend, and I managed to survive without notebook and pen. Somehow. I occasionally feel a little twitchy about it.

“Mr. Holmes,” which starred Sir Ian McKellen in the title role was based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. Featuring an elderly Sherlock Holmes beekeeping in Sussex Downs, the Detective struggles with the increasingly undeniable deterioration of his mental faculties. In a recent interview with “I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere,” Cullin said:

The novel was my way of dealing with my father's health issues as his sharp mind started to unravel. It's a literary novel, really, and a highly metaphorical yet personal one at that, touching on my own grappling with the definitive ending of my childhood.

It's also a book about lost father figures, and a tribute to the late John Bennett Shaw who had been another great benign father figure to me as a boy. I was saying goodbye to a lot of things and a lot of people with that book, and that was the function it served for me.

The 2015 film adaptation deals with many of the same themes. In the same way that Cullin’s novel was not a Sherlock Holmes novel, “Mr. Holmes” is not a Sherlock Holmes movie. It is a movie about Sherlock Holmes. Audiences looking for the explosive antics of the 2009 and 2011 Robert Downey, Jr. movies, or any of the modern adaptations, will be disappointed. There are no over-the-top murders disguised as satanic rituals. There are no complex criminal machinations or tightly wound villains. There is just an old man and his bees. His housekeeper and her young son. His memories, which fade in and out. And time, which keeps passing.  

In his lecture, Hatcher revealed that while Sir Ian had always been a top contender for the title role, he had not been the only candidate. Hatcher also gave the script to Ralph Fiennes, who declined the part upon reading it. He felt that the character would require “too much makeup,” which Hatcher had found ironic considering that Fiennes had no nose in his role has Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. On the other hand, the film’s makeup team had conceded that it would a simple job to transform Sir Ian (in his mid-seventies at the time) into the 93-year-old Great Detective, but they would not be able to turn him into the 50-year-old Holmes featured in the flashback portions of Cullin’s original novel. The best the team could do was a 60-year-old man, and so Hatcher agreed to accommodate the change.

Sir Ian does dapper pretty darn well.

Indeed, much as changed for the Great Detective at the opening of “Mr. Holmes.” There is no more 221B Baker Street, and there is no Mrs. Hudson. Holmes now lives in a country cottage and is tended to by a middle-aged war widow named Mrs. Munro (played by Laura Linney) and enjoys an increasingly amicable relationship with her young son, Roger (played by Milo Parker). Mrs. Munro is both very much like Mrs. Hudson, and also nothing like her at all. Much like Mrs. Hudson, Mrs. Munro finds Holmes frustrating and uncooperative, but much of his behavior could be explained as a product of the man’s age. It would more surprising to find a 93-year-old without any eccentricities (unlike Mrs. Hudson who was hard-pressed to find reasonable explanations for her reasonably-aged tenant’s outrageous behavior). And unlike Mrs. Hudson, Mrs. Munro has less to gain from her relationship with Holmes, and as the audience soon learns – much, much more to lose.

More importantly, there is also no Watson. The best the audience gets is a glance at a distance from a window, and a shot of the Doctor’s back as he cares for Holmes when the Detective reflects on his memories. Watson’s loss is felt early in the film, when Holmes is in need of medical care and a village practitioner arrives to attend to him. Holmes is clearly familiar with the man, and even acquiesces to the man’s suggestions as to how to assess the Detective’s increasingly faulty memory. Familiarity is not closeness, however, and this loss is only enhanced when Holmes reveals later that Watson is long dead and worse yet – that the two had been estranged at the time of Watson’s death. They never said goodbye. Holmes has also suffered the losses of Mrs. Hudson and his brother, Mycroft. Their absences are painful and undeniable, and Holmes does his best to avoid them.

There is Roger, of course – Mrs. Munro’s young son. Roger’s father died in the Second World War and he has little memory of him. He can’t distinguish between the stories his mother told him and his actual memories – which is only one of many ways in which he relates to Holmes. He is fascinated by Holmes, and assists him whenever he can and whenever he is allowed. There is a childish charm in the way that he tries to emulate Holmes, and an understanding in the way that he can’t quite achieve it. For example, Roger mixes some of Holmes’s prickly ash extract into his porridge, proudly eating it in front of his mother – only to spit it out the moment he is out the door. Reminiscent, perhaps, of:  “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” (HOUN)

“Mr. Holmes” is the self-indulgent character study that Sherlockians have always wanted, but never thought they would get. It is a truly intimate picture. An introspective look into the foibles and failings of the Great Detective is not something one expects to see on the big screen, much less with a major distribution. While not a Sherlock Holmes film in the traditional sense, “Mr. Holmes” was a gift to Sherlockians nonetheless. The film makes us think about the Master Detective, to spend time contemplating his most human characteristics. What makes him ordinary, and not extraordinary.


A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes, written by myself and Leah Guinn of The Well-Read Sherlockian is now available for purchase through Wessex Press

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Favorite Sherlock Holmes Story: "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" (SIXN)

[As presented at "A Saturday with Sherlock Holmes," in Baltimore, Md., on November 14, 2015.]

When Beth first honored me with the invitation to be here today, and I heard the theme for today’s presentations, I knew immediately and without hesitation that my favorite story in the Canon is “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” What I did not know immediately and without hesitation was why. And as I pondered the topic for many weeks (and months, if I’m being truly honest), I began to worry that maybe there wasn’t a why, that like the infamous motiveless crime I simply loved SIXN because. Because of its own merits. Because it was simply a great story. Because I said so. Because, end of sentence. Because, because, because. And then, to my own mind, I started to sound like a petulant child, unable or unwilling to complete the assignment given to her.

And this, for some reason, made me think of my mother. Who knows why?

Those who know me a little better know that my mother is the great reader of my life. She’s the reason that I love books and writing and words. And if there is anything my mother loves more than books and writing and words, it is Law & Order. Not the process, mind you – the television show. The original flavor too, not the Special Victims Unit persuasion or even the Criminal Intent version with its pseudo-Holmesian detective played by Vincent D’Onofrio (but that’s a topic for another day and another presentation). No, she loves the classic with Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy and its ever-cycling cast of district attorneys.

So, what does this have to do with Sherlock Holmes and his six busts of Napoleon, you may be asking (or not)? Because it occurred to me – as I contemplated SIXN and Jeremy Brett’s facial expressions and Basil Rathbone’s creature-features and everything else peripherally related to this tale – that the reason I loved this story is because it is exactly like an episode of Law & Order.

Told you I was going somewhere with this.

Now if you think about it (and I’m going to make you) – an episode of Law & Order typically opens with banal, unassuming scene meant to distract: some kids playing basketball in a park, two friends shopping for expensive clothing in a high-end boutique, a young couple spending the night in a fancy hotel. Eventually, all these people stumble upon something nefarious and gruesome (and usually dead). And SIXN has a similarly inauspicious beginning: the reader learns that Inspector Lestrade has taken to dropping in at Baker Street. To chat. And this particular evening is no different. They are talking about newspapers and the weather. Maybe even their macramé. There’s probably a fire going and brandy in snifters. It’s as charmingly a domestic scene if there ever was one. But not for long, because crime is about to drop from the sky, like a body falling right into the middle of the Baker Street sitting room (a plot device which may or may not have happened in an episode of Law & Order, I can’t be sure). Lestrade has a case. An interesting case – “This is certainly very novel,” says Sherlock Holmes.

Despite the case’s novelty, however, Holmes and Watson don’t pursue it right away. In fact after getting the initial details from Lestrade, Watson posits a theory which ultimately bears no fruit, and Holmes decides to wait to investigate the case until there are “fresh developments.” This brings us to our second element of a Law & Order episode: the redirection in the form of a second crime. In any given episode, upon being given their task, the detectives will set out on their investigation (this is, of course, the “law” portion of the title). However, invariably they find that this initial thread of investigation is nothing but a red herring, leading to a dead end. Or even worse (and better television), while they have been giving their energies to the first investigation, a second and related crime has been committed. There is another victim. And it’s this crime that will ultimately set the detectives on the right path towards solving the case.

In the case of SIXN, the second crime is the body found on the doorstep of Mr. Horace Harker of the Central Press Syndicate. Aside from the dead body (a minor difference), the crime at the Harker residence seems much like the others before it – shattered busts of Napoleon and all. But now there’s a photograph in the dead man’s pocket and a broken streetlamp, both of which are indicative if not outright conclusive. From there, Holmes and Watson go to Harding Brothers, and then to Mr. Morse Hudson, of the Kennington Road. It’s Morse Hudson who provides a major breakthrough (interspersed with talk of Nihilists and anarchists and red republicans). He knows the man in the photograph: it’s Beppo, “a kind of Italian piece-work man,” he says. From there Holmes and Watson “make for Gelder & Co., of Stepney, the source and origin of the busts.” And then finally, based on the information they receive there, to Chiswick and the home of Mr. Josiah Brown. This is where Beppo is apprehended with the fifth bust of Napoleon and the active investigation draws to a close.

And...commercial break!

Now, a typical episode of Law & Order is usually split equally, with "law" bowing out of the way for "order" at about the 30 minute mark. We'll find that the structure of SIXN is definitely frontloaded with more law at the beginning and a briefer order experience at the end. If SIXN were truly an episode of Law & Order, then the “order” portion of the plot would probably only take up about 10-15 minutes of the episode. However, the reader finds that the impact of Sherlock Holmes's order more than makes up for its brevity. With Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade acting as something tantamount to a jury, Holmes’s revelatory theatrics are equal to any courtroom drama. With the reveal of the missing pearl in the sixth bust, one can easily imagine Waterston’s Jack McCoy unleashing the last damning piece of evidence against the accused, and all of the pieces of the case falling neatly into place. I mean, Watson and Lestrade even break out into applause for Sherlock Holmes, like they would for any actor on the stage. Holmes then proceeds to outline the details of the case, which go back over a year, and when he is done, it is obvious to the “jury” that Beppo is guilty. Holmes has proclaimed it so, with every leap and twirl and dramatic gesture. But more than that, Holmes has proven it so. And after all, what is order if not that?

Finally, every episode of Law & Order has a summary scene. More often than not, it’s very brief. Sam Waterston shares heated words with the prosecuting attorney on the steps of the courthouse. Or there’s a poignant conversation amongst all the attorneys over Chinese food in a darkened office. It’s a way to draw the episode to close quickly, and with wit and pathos. And this, let’s be honest, the concluding scene of SIXN has in spades.  
“Well,” said Lestrade, “I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that. We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”
End of scene. Fade to black. Dun dun. And the Great Detective goes so far as to say, “Thank you! Thank you!,” as if he were at a curtain call, as if he were taking a bow.

As if you didn't know what I meant by "dun, dun".

Of course, it’s more accurate to say that the structure of SIXN paved the way for the episodic organization of Law & Order than the other way around. And I wish I could say with certainty, as Sherlock Holmes does in “The Empty House,” that “The parallel is exact.” Because it’s not exact, of course, but it is very near. It is very near enough to say that SIXN is my favorite Sherlock Holmes story because it reminds me of another dearly beloved thing. Of another dearly beloved person. Or perhaps just because. Because, because, because.