Film Review: ‘Mr. Holmes’

20 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

After filming ‘Mr. Holmes’ with Ian McKellen, Laura Linney is a big fan of English class.

Ruben Guthrie, Brendan Cowell’s feature film debut and screen adaptation of his own well-regarded play, has been described as a very Sydney film, and I’m not sure that’s a compliment.Sir Ian McKellen brings yet more prestige to the roster of finely attuned blokes — Benedict Cumberbatch, Basil Rathbone, Yank wise-guy Robert Downey Jr. — who’ve taken on Arthur Conan Doyle’s prickly, reasoning detective. The story of a hot-shot advertising man who, after a drunken accident and the departure of his fiancee, vows to give up booze for a year is superficially entertaining in a bitter kind of way, and undeniably well acted by a very strong cast — but the eponymous protagonist, despite Patrick Brammall’s energetic performance, is a pretty unsympathetic character.

On the other, the equally venerated – and even older – master detective Sherlock Holmes, whose ability to solve the most opaque mystery by analysing leftover tobacco ash or the wear on a culprit’s walking stick remains as riveting now as it was when the first story of his exploits appeared. Holmes,” told Confidenti@l that making movies is a more “civilized” experience over there. “I love working in England,” Linney told us at the movie’s premiere. “It’s a wonderful place to work. Based on Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” the measured drama imagines Holmes older (much), amused and mildly annoyed by the fictionalizing of his life by friend Dr. The excessive consumption of alcohol is a sufficiently contentious subject to deserve rather more probing treatment than Cowell is willing to invest, which is understandable given his aim appears to be a crowd-pleasing popular movie. It was far more contemporary — a number from the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast.” McKellen is shooting scenes for the largely live-action film adaptation as Cogsworth, chief steward to the lead lumberer, and as he relaxed he took the chance to get into character.

The crews are fantastic, the people are lovely. “It’s so much more civilized a way to approach a day,” said the star, who also has serious Anglophile cred because of her role introducing “Downtown Abbey” on PBS. “It’s not as punishing and there’s a real sense of common purpose with everyone, from the drivers to the crew, to the administration to the office,” she said. “It’s a lovely, more intimate experience. Ruben Guthrie may well turn out to be just that, but in exploring the world of Sydney characters the film falls into the trap of creating stereotypes.

Since then we have had four novels and 56 short stories from Conan Doyle and numerous versions of the detective on screens large and small, from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder, 1970) to Young Sherlock Holmes (Barry Levinson, 1985), with numerous adaptations and pastiches since film started rolling. This is especially true of the cliched female characters, and even of Ruben’s best friend, a flamboyant gay guy played with extravagant charm by Alex Dimitriades. At an age when most actors would happily trade an IMDB credit for a few weeks in the south of France, the classically trained Brit has instead been poring over scripts and waking up for early call times. In Mr Holmes, Condon’s quietly paced take on the popular “one last case” trope, Holmes is 93 and long retired, living in a charming and isolated old farmhouse on the Sussex Downs and keeping bees. He recently wrapped the British TV movie “The Dresser,” based on the Ronald Harwood classic, and shot a second season of his gay-themed sitcom “Vicious.” Last year he and pal Patrick Stewart wound down a twofer of “Waiting for Godot” and Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” on Broadway; the two are reviving the latter on the West End next year.

He discovers with a bit of regret that he didn’t let love into his heart.” That’s certainly not so for the bon vivant actor, 76, who has become almost as famous for his fun-filled friendship with fellow British actor Sir Patrick Stewart as he is for his iconic movie roles. As a result his live-in girlfriend, Zoya (Abbey Lee), a Czech model, leaves him and declares her intention to return to Prague, though she also announces that she’ll return to him if he gives up the grog for 12 months.

But for fans of those roles, which include Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” series, McKellen says that unlike Holmes, whose memory is fading, he has no trouble remembering lines. Zoya, whose photograph dominates the living area of Ruben’s house, reveals that they met when she was only 16 and that she moved in immediately, but now she’s had enough, and it’s only when she’s left that Ruben realises how much she means to him — as much as anyone, apart from himself, means anything to him, that is. The pair did tremendous work when they imagined “Frankenstein” director James Whale’s final days in “Gods and Monsters.” This outing is just as smartly intimate. So he decides he will go dry, joins Alcoholics Anonymous (attending the Tamarama branch) and is encouraged in his efforts to reform by his friend Ken (Aaron Bertram). Not that this has brought Holmes serenity; he has aches and pains and is more cantankerous than ever, although his irritation is now that of an old man who resents his failing memory and creaking joints rather than that of the cleverest person in any room.

In his tenacious desire to remain working and relevant at an advanced age, the character could double as a metaphor for McKellen’s own late-career attitudes. “I thought a few years ago I was going to slow down — you know, accept all those invitations and go somewhere just because you want to see a place,” he said, settling down for a cigarette at a sun-dappled table. “But then I thought: ‘It won’t be long before you trip and break your leg and that’s the end of your acting career. What reserves of patience he has left are kept for Roger, the inquiring son of his housekeeper Mrs Munro, played with practical country charm (and a faultless regional accent) by Laura Linney.

And then you can just do radio — if your eyes don’t give way.’ So I kept going.” “Kept going” is a key phrase for McKellen, who in the past few years has shot three “Hobbit” movies as his signature Gandalf character and reprised his Magneto role for another “X-Men” installation. His advertising agency boss, Ray (Jeremy Sims), reckons he’s not as creative now that he’s not a little plastered, and brings in a new, younger, more creative type, Chet (Brenton Thwaites), to set Ruben an example.

His father, Peter (Jack Thompson), isn’t keen either; divorced from Susan (Robyn Nevin), Ruben’s initially supportive mother, Peter, who owns a very up-market restaurant, sees it as a kind of insult that his son won’t drink with him. And then there’s Damian (Dimitriades), who returns after living abroad, and moves in — and there’s no way he’s going to cut down on his drinking, smoking or sexual activities. In recent times he has been performing a brace of Samuel Beckett plays in London and New York and making a version of The Dresser with Anthony Hopkins for the BBC.

By this time, Ruben has found a replacement for Zoya in Virginia (Harriet Dyer), a vegan with green hair he met at AA meetings, and she and Damian take an instant dislike to one another. His film career, which only exploded into full-scale stardom around the turn of the millennium, has included two huge franchises in which he plays crucial roles (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit and Magneto in X-Men and its spin-offs).

But when the boy (Milo Parker) encourages Holmes to write a short story, the detective finds himself troubled by forgotten events from his crime-solving heyday, particularly a case involving a troubled woman. A:What is unusual about doing very big, popular films, or a series of films, is you know there are millions of people waiting for you to make the film and wanting to see it. This is where Cowell allows no shades of grey; Damian is an arrogant boor and Virginia a hidebound bore — no wonder there’s not much joy in the Guthrie household. At one stage, he said in a recent talk about his new film, he thought he might cut back a little to work only half the year. “Then I thought, now, this is a bit silly, because I might trip, or something might trip up here” – he taps his head – “and no more acting for Ian. Despite the screenplay’s limitations and the stereotyping of so many of its characters, especially the women, Ruben Guthrie succeeds, with a certain grim humour, in depicting a world of shallow people.

Both putatively and enjoyably a mystery, the film is equally interested in investigating what happens when gumption smacks up against the wall of old age. “There’s a fun in impersonating old age — I mean real old age,” said McKellen, whose walk, breathing and gestures in the film possess a lived-in feel. “Just stepping toward the camera with the makeup on, it lands on you pretty quickly.” He added, “But it’s not like I’m viewing old age from a long way away. The actors are uniformly good, better than their roles require, and Simon Harding’s photography of various ultra-glamorous Sydney locations is proficient. And it is frank about it: the intrusions and erosions of memory and the presence of death. “Old age, if you are 76, is of constant interest to you,” McKellen says when we meet after the film’s launch at the Berlin Film Festival. “Some people never reach it, of course.

In the end, though, Ruben is a very shallow and unpleasant a character to be the focus of the film; he doesn’t care much for anything, so why should we care anything much for him? I think the act of coming out for Ian transformed his life [McKellen announced he was gay in 1988, at nearly 50], made him more accessible on screen.” Though the “Hobbit” movies have now wound down and “X-Men” has appeared to fully pass the Magneto baton to Michael Fassbender, McKellen continues to remain associated with those properties. I’m not a fan of the television Sherlock portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, while Robert Downey Jr’s portrayals of the sleuth in a couple of dire films are best forgotten. He doesn’t especially mind the work itself either. “Alec Guinness was famously disgruntled that people knew him from ‘Star Wars,’ ” McKellen said, then, with a slight twinkle, added, “But he wasn’t playing Gandalf, was he?” “So @IanMcKellen recited Bad Blood and I did Blank Space on @NPRAskMeAnother.

Flashbacks transport us to 1917 to depict the case of Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), whose childless wife Ann (Hattie Morahan) has started behaving mysteriously. The case involves a strange musicologist (Frances de la Tour) and an arcane musical instrument, a glass armonica, but Holmes, though he racks his brains, can’t remember the details. While he struggles with his memory, he enjoys spending time with 14-year-old Roger Munro (Milo Parker), his housekeeper’s very bright son, whose father was killed during the recent war. (He also journeys to postwar Japan, and to the ruins of Hiroshima, in search of prickly ash, a herbal remedy.) The film, directed by Bill Condon, cuts back and forth between these plot threads, gradually filling in the details that illuminate the mystery of the unhappy wife — or The Lady in Grey, the title of Watson’s fictionalised account. Dismissing Dr Watson’s popular accounts of his cases as mere penny dreadfuls, the aged Sherlock is trying and failing to recall the details of his last case, which somehow involved a German music teacher, a lost glove and a bee.

The plotting of Mr Holmes is pretty slight and the Japanese sequences fail to convince, but despite these drawbacks there’s a great deal to enjoy in this mellow and affectionate film. Not least there’s McKellen’s fine performance both as the formidable, celebrated detective in the scenes set in 1917 and as the slightly doddery old man struggling to remember his past 30 years later. One of the curiosities of Holmes is that while Conan Doyle’s stories are still enjoyed by teenaged readers, Sherlock Holmes has long since broken free of their constraints. First there was the success of Guy Ritchie’s flashy films, with Robert Downey jnr remaking Holmes in his own agitated image – he is visibly thinking so quickly that you expect his eyes to spin in their sockets – and adding martial arts to Holmes’ otherwise cerebral arsenal.

Then came the BBC series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role and Martin Freeman as loyal Dr Watson, set in the present day (a very tweedy and oaken modern day, admittedly) and quite ingeniously recalibrating Holmes’ legendary powers of deduction to accommodate things like Twitter. An American reworking called Elementary, in which Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes works for the NYPD and trains his apprentice Joan Watson played by Lucy Liu,followed hot on its heels.

And yet it is undoubtedly Holmes’s screen life that ensured the character’s immortality, persuading young readers to keep ploughing through Conan Doyle’s more excessive Victorian locutions. If British troops were fighting for crumpets, lawns and spinsters on bicycles – as a contemporary list suggested they were – they were also fighting for the right of jolly odd chaps like Holmes to solve mysteries. Not really, he says at first. “The difference is that an actor might well observe and, if you were a mimic, you would then be able to copy a voice or movements.

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