Movie review: Mr Holmes

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)


The Divinyls’ Chrissy Amphlett famously observed that there is “a fine line between pleasure and pain”, but the same could well be said for the all too often permeable barrier that exists between fact and fiction.

While many would argue the two are mutually exclusive, never the ‘twain shall meet, the truth is that the two blur into each other more than we might notice.

One man most implacably opposed to the idea of the two sharing any kind of intermingling, real or imagined, is the elderly, rather famous protagonist in director Bill Condon’s immaculately-realised, quietly moving film Mr. Holmes.

Based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 book A Slight Trick of the Mind with a screenplay by Jeffery Hatcher, the movie is set in 1947, and centres on a staunchly resolute 93 year old Sherlock Holmes, here presented as an ageing real man of failing mind and body – it is the former that most offends a man for whom the mind has been a bastion, ally and valued stock in trade – who has found himself, quite unexpectedly, immortalised in fictionalised “penny dreadful” accounts with literary intent by ex-partner Watson, from whom he is now somewhat estranged.

A man long-convinced of the supremacy of facts, intelligence and the power of human reasoning, and played with intensely affecting understatement by the superlative Sir Ian McKellen, Holmes remains convinced that reality and truth exist on an untouchable plain, unsullied by the rather emotive and misleading demands of emotive, fictionalising concerns.

The irony is, of course, is that Holmes is a fictional character (written by the legendary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) who is presented in the film as a real man grappling with the fact that he has been, rather erroneously he thinks, rendered as a made-up character from whom he has been forced to distance himself by redefining those elements that once distinguished him.

He is, for instance, now a cigar rather than pipe smoker – though he admits rather ruefully he quite likes the latter pursuit and would be undertaking it had Watson not appropriated it as a Holmes characteristic for his stories – and is at pains to point out he has never worn the iconic deer-stalker hat.



While this blurring between what is real and what is imagined permeates the film repeatedly, Holmes, who is tackling his loss of mental faculties with daily doses of Japanese Prickly Ash which he journeys to immediately post World War Two Japan to acquire, refuses to acknowledge it.

That is until the man he meets in Japan, Matstuda Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who believes Holmes convinced his now-dead father to abandon his family and stay in London after his diplomatic posting ending, and the impelling need to solve his final case, lead him, bit by bit, to understand fact and fiction may be more intertwined that he previously understood.

Spurring this slowly-unfurling “Road to Damascus” moment is the grandfatherly relationship he develops, against all expectations with the bright, eager, fatherless son, Roger (promising young actor Milo Parker) of his still-grieving housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) who awakens in him an appreciation that the vagaries of the human condition pay little heed to an artificial demarcation between the tangible and the imagined.

The human experience more often than not wilfully blends the two together, and while Holmes would have once robustly argued this is misleading, a muddying of the clear water of pure facts and intellectual understanding, an approach central to the way he solved his cases, he comes to see that the two mixing together is a simple fact of life.

It is, however, a somewhat long and painful road for Holmes, one explored with sensitivity and understanding, admirably stripped of mawkish sentimentalising or melodramatic intent by the director and screenplay writer alike.



What results from this restrained but hardly lifeless approach to telling this imagined story about a fictional character made real and then fictionalised all over again, is a robust exploration of the human condition that freely admits that you never divorce what you know to be real – itself a rather rubbery idea open to challenge – from that which is either made-up or of dubious legitimacy.

Making Holmes, a man who championed the bringing together of facts, of two plus two adding up to equal an unimpeachable four, the one who discover this elemental life lesson, one which influences the way he relates to Roger, his mother and the resentful Mr. Umezaki, is a clever device indeed.

In the hands of Sir Ian McKellen, a masterful actor who neatly and convincingly contrasts the Holmes of old, all facts and nothing but the facts and sure of them, with the new, more aware of the questionability of what we accept to be true, Holmes fairly sings as a modern day Paul dealing with a revelation that, though beneficial to him ultimately, is painful to accept at first.

Looking for all the world like a twee BBC period piece, Mr Holmes is in fact nothing of the kind, a cleverly-executed, immensely satisfying imagining – there is that word again; you just can’t escape it can you? – of one very famous man’s journey from a singular appreciation of the world, one defined by fact, to one in which it merrily co-exists, and often gleefully intermingles, with fiction.

It’s this immensely-pleasing balancing of the intellectual, the literary and the all too human that lends Mr Holmes much of its appeal, a film that reminds once again that the human experience is far too amorphous and messy a creature to ever be contained in one easily-contained, starkly delineated box.


Related Post