Arthur Conan Doyle published his final Sherlock Holmes opus in 1927. Copyright laws in Great Britain and the USA allowed him and subsequently his heirs to collect gazillions of pounds and dollars in royalties and fees since then, but the flow of those monies has become a trickle. Wikipedia tells us that the last of the copyrights expired in Britain in 2000. In the States, a handful of the final Holmes stories still are under copyright, but all the rest have fallen into the public domain. And a 2014 federal appeals court ruling stated that the creators of books and movies and television shows inspired by Sherlock no longer are obligated to pay licensing fees to the Conan Doyle estate, whose members must be grinding their teeth. I mean, is there a more enduring fictional figure than Holmes, the masterful detective? He’s hard to miss. Robert Downey Jr. starred as Holmes in two big screen productions from the 2000s, and a third undoubtedly will be heading our way in the near future. And two Holmes series currently are alive and well on the small screen: In the aptly named Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays a modern day version of the great man in London for BBC television. Also set in the present day is Elementary, a New York City-based Sherlockian study, this one on CBS.
Books too have kept alive the Sherlock character. Dozens and dozens of them. For example, 2005’s A Slight Trick Of The Mind. Mitch Cullin wrote Slight Trick, and it is the basis for Mr. Holmes, the movie now gracing art houses and multiplexes worldwide. My wife Sandy and I recently watched it, and liked it, at the friendly and classy Ambler Theater in beautiful downtown Ambler, PA.
I’ve given some thought to Mr. Holmes, not an easy feat for me to undertake or accomplish. And I’ve come away with the opinion that the flick needn’t be looked at as part of the Sherlock Holmes continuum. It certainly is about Holmes, in fact a 93-year-old version of himself trying to stare down his failing mind and the end of his earthly existence. But the movie would stand just as handsomely if a few plot strands were reworked to undo the Holmes references, and if the lead figure were given another name. The movie I’d say is less about Holmes and more about understanding oneself, coming to grips with one’s shortcomings, trying to become a better person even as the end of the line draws near.
It is 1947 in the county of Sussex, England. By choice, Sherlock Holmes lives there in semi-obscurity on a small farm near the English Channel. He has been retired from the investigator game for about 30 years, having decided to hang up his detective tools because, because, because . . . Sherlock cannot remember why. His brain power, and body for that matter, are pretty strong, but some memories have begun to fade away. Holmes knows that his powers are slipping. An avid bee cultivator, he has doused himself for some time with his colonies’ royal jelly, a presumed mental strength rejuvenator. As the movie begins, he returns to Sussex from Japan, laden with that country’s prickly ash, a herbaceous product likewise touted for its restorative powers. Sherlock Holmes is not one to settle back and accept a drowsy and inevitable descent into a muddled mind.
At home, Sherlock and his property are tended to by Mrs. Munro, a widow with a bright as can be 12-year-old son, Roger. And it is here, in the mixings of these three lives, that the story finds its epicenter. Holmes, who has aged gracefully, is no longer the flinty and brusque superman of his younger days. He is fairly gentle with fellow humans and tolerant of their ways. Yet deep love is not, never was, an emotion he feels at home with. Spoiler alert: By movie’s end he will have opened his heart wider than ever.
A good chunk of the movie concerns a mystery from the past, from the years of the First World War. And that mystery, which involved Sherlock and a troubled woman, led to Sherlock Holmes’ abandonment of his Baker Street digs in London and his retirement to the English countryside. Throughout the film he strains to remember the why of his resettlement. But put aside this artistically designed and developed aspect of the movie and you still are left with a lovely character study. Ian McKellan, face creased like an accordion’s bellows, handles the elderly Holmes character with nuance and charm. His Holmes is quite yet smart as a whip, and not ashamed of the emotional vulnerabilities he has begun to develop in his golden years. His is the most complicated character on screen, the most multifaceted and the one with the most growing to do. Laura Linney (Mrs. Munro), the great American actress who to my ears has her English accent down pat, and Milo Parker (Roger Munro) at varying times coexist, bond and brawl with McKellan’s Holmes marvelously.
Bill Condon sure-handedly directed Mr. Holmes. The movie’s languid pacing feels right, and I’d bet that much of the credit for the actors’ strong performances belongs to him. Mr. Holmes is not a tearjerker. Oh, maybe one Kleenex will be of use. What we have here is a mostly cliché-free look at the tail end of the life of a proud man determined, maybe destined, to be a mensch.
(Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on the photo a larger image will open)
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