In the Shadow of Rathbone: Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes

holmes-basil-rathbone“I told Watson, if I ever write a story myself, it will be to correct the million misconceptions created by his imaginative license.”

Sherlock Holmes, portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen, makes this statement in Mr. Holmes (2015), a film directed by Bill Condon and based on Mitch Cullen’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. On one level, that line says much about the film. Viewers learn “the truth” about Holmes as he, in his retirement, struggles to recall and recount his final case. He failed to conclude that mystery satisfactorily, a young woman died, and Holmes abandoned crime-solving in favor of bee-keeping. As the film opens, he’s hoping to revisit and finally close the file on that investigation — that is, while his failing mind allows him to do so. He deduces that telling the true tale on paper will help him accomplish this.

It’s a touching and visually beautiful film that humanizes Holmes. Despite a few red herrings — odd flourishes in the story, not just misdirects in the mystery — this stands as one of the better Holmes films emerging in the shadow of Rathbone.

mckellen as holmesShining in Sherlock’s Shadow

It’s Ian McKellen, after all.

Not surprisingly, one of the main draws of Mr. Holmes is watching the renowned actor assume the role of the renowned character. Of course, he’s not just playing the great detective. He’s playing a brilliant man haunted by having goofed up. A man desperate to forestall his rapidly dimming brilliance, even if it means traveling to Japan for a particular root that is alleged to work. A man who, after leading a lonely life, is still frustrated by his inability to connect emotionally with those around him.

It’s a complicated role, and while Jerry Hatcher’s screen-adaptation of Cullin’s novel shares the spotlight, McKellen manages to convey all the complexities in this atypically deep depiction of Holmes.

off-camera watsonWatching Watson

Well, that’s just it, isn’t it?

You see, Watson has gone off to get married (again?), and he’s a fringe character in this adventure. This story is very much Holmes without Watson.

So there’s that.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

I haven’t read the novel, and I wonder if it handles a key deviation from the canon any differently. Holmes did chronicle a couple of his cases, according to Arthur Conan Doyle. They are “The Adventure of the Blanched Solider” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” both well worth reading after watching Mr. Holmes.

Of course, some of the fun of the film is discovering how its fictional fictional Holmes is a product of Watson’s imaginative license along with the license taken by the illustrator and the film makers who followed. (Regarding the latter, keep an eye out for the all-grown-up Nicholas Rowe, who played the title role in Young Sherlock Holmes, this film’s “other bookend.”) The fictional real Holmes here smokes no pipe, wears no deerstalker, and doesn’t live at 221B.  Well . . . he does live near 221B.

In addition, this film’s central mystery doesn’t have the feel of those in the canon. It’s a heartfelt film, and the case is one that involves grief and emotional isolation. It must be so in order to affect Holmes so deeply. That fits, then.

What doesn’t quite fit are those narrative red herrings. What does post-WWII Hiroshima have to do with the major themes being explored? Was that simply an emotionally-packed historical marker, showing a world very different from Holmes’s customary Victorian period? Come to think of it, why the sub-plot with the Japanese characters at all? I suppose I could drone on about how, perhaps, the lesson here is something like this: the accuracy of the stories we tell isn’t what matters most — we just need believable stories to live with the tragedies of our past, be those tragedies personal or global. I’m not sure it entirely works, though.

Still, what’s wonderful is that the film stirs such “big” thoughts, something that’s unusual for a Sherlock Holmes movie.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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