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

1 comment:

  1. I know I've read a good essay when a portion would work as well in a poem as it does in prose:

    "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."

    I enjoyed this review so much, and I especially love your affection for way it portrays the aging Holmes. I haven't seen this film yet, but your words will accompany me when I do!