Arts Review, Movies

Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes featured image

Bill Condon, director

Jeffrey Hatcher, script based on A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin

Starring: Sir Ian McKellen (Sherlock Holmes), Laura Linney (Mrs. Munro), Milo Parker (Roger), Hattie Morahan (Ann Kelmot), Hiroyuki Sanada (Matsuda Umezaki), Roger Allam (Dr. Barrie)

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Zoomers have to face it. Sometimes growing old can be tough. It can slow down Sherlock Holmes even when Sir Ian McKellen plays him. Mind you, this Sherlock is 93 and the year is 1947, a time when it was harder to stay vigorous while aging.

Sherlock is, in fact, in retirement, living in a farmhouse in Sussex and cared for by his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (a rather stern and one-dimensional Laura Linney) and her young son, Roger. The famously razor sharp detective is becoming rather forgetful and, as Mr. Holmes begins, he’s just returning from a visit to Japan where he obtained prickly ash, apparently a cure for his condition. At home, he happily returns to tending his bees—knowing that their royal jelly also can help what he calls “senility.”

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Apart from the mystery that is dealing with life’s infirmities, Sherlock is intent on rewriting his old friend Dr. Watson’s account of his last case. Holmes is sure that Watson got it wrong but in writing his own version, Sherlock finds himself forgetting exactly what happened. Called into to help a somewhat accident prone Holmes, Dr. Barrie, a kindly country doctor who makes house calls—this really must be 1947—asks Sherlock about Japan as does young Roger. Meanwhile, Mrs. Munro would like to leave the farmhouse and move to a town where her sister lives, taking Roger with her.

Mr. Holmes slowly develops its narrative structure, moving between scenes in the farmhouse, back thirty years to his puzzling last case and over to Japan, where Holmes solves the mystery of an obsessive fan, who isn’t exactly who he claims to be.

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The most intriguing aspect of this portrait of Sherlock Holmes in extremely old age is the relationship between the detective and Roger. Holmes takes the boy under his wing, encouraging his love of mystery solving and bee keeping. There’s something rather touching about Holmes’ mentorship of the lad, which makes Mrs. Munro’s negative feelings about it, seem somewhat sinister. What is she worried about? The film evokes much tension around this relationship but never explores it in depth.

Perhaps that’s just as well.

The main attraction in Mr. Holmes is, of course, Sir Ian McKellen, who is terrific in the part. He never condescends towards Holmes, nor does he play up the detective’s famed eccentricities. McKellen has the confidence to give us a unique Sherlock, an aging genius who is filled with loneliness and remorse for the things he never did in his life.

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Bill Condon, the director whose previous collaboration with McKellen was Gods and Monsters, a brilliant portrait of the eccentric film director James Whale, is clearly in synch with his actor. Though this film won’t match the success of their first pairing, he has once again made a vivid drama out of pop cultural material. (Whale, for those who have forgotten Gods and Monsters, directed the first Frankenstein films.)

Mr. Holmes takes an iconic detective and makes him a singular old man. That’s not a small achievement.

Vittorio De Sica Retrospective

Vittorio De Sica Retrospective

TIFF Bell Lightbox, June 26 to September 6, 2015
Check tiff.net for more information

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More than Life Itself: Rediscovering the Films of Vittorio De Sica is quite a title for a retrospective but so was the man that TIFF is honouring.  Vittorio De Sica is a rarity—at his best, he was a great actor and director. Few fit into the category; Welles, certainly, and Chaplin. Keaton qualifies, during the silent era, and some might argue for others: Takeshi Kitano and perhaps, during his peak period, Jean Renoir. In recent times, Clint Eastwood has added his name to the list. But no one acted for such a long time and for so many directors as De Sica while also garnering accolades as a director. Yet apart from Italy, his name hardly has an iconic status.

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Perhaps TIFF’s retrospective, mounted along with the Summer in Italy programme, will  begin to change Canadian views toward De Sica. There’s no doubt that De Sica did produce some of the key art films of the post World War Two era. Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D. and Miracle in Milan, made between 1946 and 1952 are, along with Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Paisan, the acknowledged classics of neorealism.

During this period, De Sica used amateurs in all of the key roles though some went on to pursue thespian careers. The stories, crafted by the legendary writer Cesare Zavattini, combined with De Sica’s brilliant direction of actors, seemed as if they were taken directly from life. They were simple tales: a destitute old man contemplates suicide; a father and son try to recover a stolen bicycle; a couple of shoeshine boys become enmeshed in a black market scheme; an orphan gains magic powers to save a poor community. But they felt real to audiences in Italy and around the world. Their humanity and fearless looks at tragedy resonated with a population just recently liberated from the harshest of world wars.

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De Sica’s best films still seem great today—though, clearly, they are from a special historical time. What is interesting in this retrospective is the care that is given to establishing De Sica as a terrific comic actor and a director who, at his best, continued to make important films for the rest of his career.

TIFF senior programmer James Quandt has selected some superb performances by De Sica—as the cynical aristocrat turned romantic in Max Ophuls acclaimed The Earrings of Madame de…; as the gambler in his own The Gold of Naples; as a romantic chauffeur in What Scoundrels Men Are! and, above all, as the con man turned insurgent leader in Rossellini’s General della Rovere. They certainly make the case that De Sica was both a fine matinee idol in his youth and a terrific character actor as he aged.

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As for De Sica’s films after his string of post-WW2 masterpieces, they still seem to be a mixed bag to this critic. De Sica was undoubtedly Sophia Loren’s best director. She’s wonderful as the mother in war-torn Italy in Two Women (for which she won her Oscar); in three roles in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; as a pizza vendor in Gold of Naples and as the wily, sexy trickster in Marriage, Italian Style. But would these films be half as good without Loren?

One could counter by saying that De Sica wouldn’t have made the films without Loren or, if he had, somehow he would have gotten great performances from other actresses. After all, he had worked wonders with amateurs.

What’s incontestable is that De Sica did come back towards the end of his career with one final masterpiece, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This sympathetic look at a stylish, doomed Jewish Italian family during World War Two still stands the test of time. And so does De Sica. He may not be the auteur that Fellini is—but who was the better actor?

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Good Day GTA.

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