Laura Linney and Ian McKellen were the main attraction for an audience at last night’s sold-out screening of director Bill Condon’s new movie about an aging Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Holmes. This hints at the film’s marketing problems. But first let me acknowledge these fine actors, who kindly appeared at ArcLight Cinemas on Hollywood Boulevard to promote Mr. Holmes.
Mr. McKellen, whose career ranges from many Shakespeare roles to parts in the popular X-Men and Lord of the Rings movie series, is a witty old ham. His humor is dry, though not as biting as it is on his PBS series Vicious, and he knows how to relax and enjoy himself, which I think is the source of his appeal. But he knows what to take seriously, too. Telling a tale of an actor’s crippling self-doubt, he deftly conveyed both the challenge of being an actor and the impact of being a critic. The upshot he delivered is a tacit urge to think about the potential impact of one’s criticism or communication before it’s finally rendered.
This is crucial and, in his confession of vulnerability, Mr. McKellen punctuated the point. The openly gay actor also cited James Whale, an openly gay director he portrayed in Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998), as a hero and he answered an intelligent question about his criteria for taking a role. He said it’s solely whether he would want to see the story. Linney, too, answered the same question, though her answer included an additional aspect. Linney, known for playing thoughtful, complicated characters such as Clara in Condon’s Kinsey (2004) and a love interest in the final season of Frasier, said that she reads a script first for story, then examines whether the character as written can even be played. This second point she said comes from the fact that she thinks many of today’s scripts are written not to depict a story with characters but to convince a filmmaker to make the script into a movie, often at the expense of story, character and theme.
Linney is as reserved as one might expect—though it’s hard to be assertive next to the charismatic Ian McKellen—and as thoughtful, too. She knew exactly why she accepted the dowdy housekeeper role in Mr. Holmes, she said: Bill Condon, who directed her in Kinsey, Ian McKellen as her co-star, the subject of Sherlock Holmes—Linney says she’s been a “fanatic” of the character since she was a child—and an opportunity to shoot in England. Her story of overcoming self-doubt was the evening’s most powerful moment. She talked of attending acting school at Julliard and, after feeling inadequate and fearing failure, wanting to drop out. An instructor took note of her decision and, choosing to physically remove her from the parts of the school with which she was most familiar, he told her to snap out of it, essentially instructing her that the purpose of an education is to learn from failure, which, in turn, seeds success.
Unfortunately, Mr. Holmes, despite the cast’s efforts, is not a success.
With revolving subplots, starring Mr. McKellen as Sherlock Holmes toward the end of his life, this is neither a leisurely stroll through his legendary past, as one might have reason to expect, nor an intellectual odyssey accounting for an unsolved or bungled case. Yet both are implied in the premise of Mr. Holmes, which seeks to cash in on what draws the audience to Sherlock Holmes: his use of reason. This is why he’s enduringly popular in Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant portrayal for PBS and gets an audience even in awful movies such as Robert Downey, Jr.‘s recent Sherlock Holmes fare.
Condon, a filmmaker with a penchant for odd and unusual figures, such as James Whale and Alfred Kinsey, diminishes the faculty of reason, choosing to emphasize instead the flaws, mistakes and failures of Sherlock Holmes. All of this robs the movie of suspense and drama. Not only is seeing the hero’s feet of clay, or, in this case, wrinkles and sour expressions, utterly boring, it is also terribly predictable. The two major plot points, including the climax, can be seen an English countryside away and this is irredeemable, especially in a movie about Sherlock Holmes. Certainly, Mr. Holmes has the attention to detail and he is adept at being rational. He sees the smallest point as part of a larger pattern when warranted and is able to discern the essentials. But Condon, basing his movie on a book, portrays his deteriorating mind in senility or memory loss, leading to endless speculation about a particular past case involving a husband, a wife and a mystic.
In the bleak resolution, which culminates with a climax of his relationship with an intelligent and precociously fatherless boy (Milo Parker) and the keeping of bees, Sherlock Holmes emerges as pained, guilt-ridden and miserable. After declaring that he’s “never had much use for imagination” and proclaiming a false dichotomy between fact and fiction reflecting a total distortion of how to use both—later contradicting himself—he finally purges his self-loathing with an admission that he’s consumed by fear and, that he’s “selfish” (gasp!) which sadly he’s never portrayed to be in this dull, dreary movie. Mr. Holmes concludes with Sherlock Holmes on his knees, brought entirely and literally down to earth, the opposite of his upright posture in the movie’s poster and how he arguably ought to be seen. That he succumbs to the sin of writing fiction in order to tell lies that spare someone’s feelings completes the inversion. This is Sherlock Holmes having been in the wrong. This is Sherlock as ultimately undone.
Some might protest that he’s redeemed by being somewhat “humanized” for once, with human, again, meaning weak, fragile, puny and insignificant and that he’s right in a final analysis. But he’s not right about what truly matters, he’s only right about a fact that bears no practical relation to anyone’s interests and this comes after considerable damage is done, even on Mr. Holmes‘ terms. None of this is the fault of Laura Linney, who as Mrs. Munro the widowed housekeeper and mother to the boy is excellent, or Ian McKellen, who, as usual, is supremely watchable in everything he says and does on screen. Their characters’ relationship is the best part of the ineffectual Mr. Holmes, which contains subtexts and half-formed elements that might have made an interesting whole.
I suspect that the lead actors did Bill Condon, whose Dreamgirls is similarly flat but brighter, a favor by appearing in Hollywood to promote the movie. I wanted to like it and I’m glad to be the beneficiary of their goodwill. Their thoughts are more enlightened than the ill-conceived Mr. Holmes.