True Detective: Mr. Holmes

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Sherlock Holmes is not, for all intents and purposes, a sensitive person. His creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote him deftly as more of a fastidious automaton – quick with wit and lesson, humorous, but overtly dispassionate – and the subsequent iterations of the character have toyed with his unfeeling attitude. For drama in Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, and Jeremy Brett; for humor in Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Nicholas Rowe; and, in what Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes asserts itself as a cinematic equivalence of His Last Bow, for pathos in Ian McKellen.

Holmes joins another Brit in what feels like somewhat of a recent trend of revisionist approaches to iconic characters, Mr. James Bond. They’re not entirely different, as there’s a fairly distinct line one could draw from Holmes to Bond, and the Daniel Craig era, too, suggests a canonization of what had been hitherto anthological. Holmes’ stories, similarly, had little in the way of an exact linearity or marriage to consistent structure. (Though, I’m sure my friends at the Baker Street Irregulars would be quick to posit that a timeline for Conan Doyle’s stories does exist in a fashion where minute details are dropped to suggest a linear structure of events and cases.) In Condon’s Mr. Holmes, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, the published cases of the great detective exist as, according to Holmes’ fussy implications, excitable and mostly erroneous adventure mysteries that are more fiction than fact. McKellen gruffly writes the stories off, and, as a corrective, begins to write his own side of a certain case.

In almost all adaptations and portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, he is crafted as a bit of a one dimensional cartoon character, there to serve as exposition and narrative propeller than an actual character. To be fair, Conan Doyle’s own craftsmanship was more game like than necessarily a feat of prose writing. Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher seem to be aware of their character stacked up against the previous versions. It is therefore rather amusing to watch McKellen’s Holmes, fleshed out, flawed, wounded, juxtaposed against the public perceptions of the character that permeate the film: young Roger’s (Milo Parker) “do it” attitude towards the sleuth’s uncanny ability to deduce where a person is from and where they’ve been merely from observing their clothing, the assumption that Holmes wore a deerstalker cap, and watching Basil Rathbone play him on the screen, looking on with disgust.

On a superficial level, Mr. Holmes feels probably most contemptible because of ho embellished his cases had been when making it from real life to the page and to the screen. On another level, what’s unacknowledged in these versions is that Holmes has gravitas to his character that existed in the original text but seldom makes it to the screen. Sherlock Holmes is a man of contradictions, at once bohemia and “cat like” in his personal cleanliness. Sharp and exact, yet indulgent. Cold and standoffish, but carefully cognizant and passionate about a case. He’s the mystery nobody bothered to solve.

On the one hand, there’s no need to solve a man of contradictions. They have the possibility to make characters more interesting without explanation. Yet, after a century of iconography, there’s a nagging sense of wanting to discern who Sherlock Holmes is. The answer is that Sherlock Holmes is a broken person.

Mr. Holmes takes us to Japan, to the past, and to Sussex, where he is long retired, hiding away from the world. The character who normally finds himself home in Victorian Era London is now out of place, out of time, and without purpose. The world famous detective is living only to try to grasp the memory of his that is fading away. By overtly parsing through his recollections, past and present, we get a textural feel of who Sherlock Holmes is. I find the tagline – “The Man Beyond the Myth” – a tad gauche, personally, and rather reductive, but it’s not completely inaccurate. We do get to experience this Holmes as more than a piece of iconography designed to puzzle solve. He is, maybe for the first time since the original texts, human. This isn’t to say that previous Holmeses have been inhumane, but they have often crafted him at as much of a distance from humanity as he is from passion and vitality.

This is evident in the how cognizant the film is when it juxtaposes the Sherlock Holmes of the past, in his story and adorned with a top hat, as a man of precision when consulting on a case, and a man of the present, complex in his gentility and harshness towards Roger (Milo Parker) and his  mother (Laura Linney), and, most of all, to himself.

mr holmes

The memories of Holmes as dispassionate are a kind of fuel, an examination of the extra-textual narratives that fill in the gaps of our memory, obfuscating the identity we’ve cultivated for ourselves. The surrounding world is as intent on creating an identity for you as you are. In that, there’s a kind of trauma that remains: the glow of things past, and, to steal the title of Ishiguro’s novel, the remains of the day. For that novel, too, dealt with remnants of the past, embers that retain some illumination but must reconcile with the world at present. McKellen’s soulful eyes, and his articulation deteriorating for the film, reach their apex in quiet moments: always alone even when a young woman, similarly coping with trauma, sits next to him. It’s at that moment there’s the chance for solace, and one that he squanders. Even the scowl that looks as if it were carved into his face begins to melt away.

I was admittedly hesitant when I saw the trailer for Mr. Holmes: I had expected, upon hearing of the project, that, as is Hollywood’s wont, this film would be gritty, dark, morbid. The trailer made it look sentimental. The finished film is able to converge both ideas: its dark melancholic textures complement its sentimentality, all without being saccharine.

The best mysteries, as I’m prone to reiterating, are never about the plots, per se; they’re about the panoramas the writers (or directors) illustrate: examinations of peoples, places, and things. Furthermore, they’re introspective in some way, the detective considering their own humanity, morality, etc. It’s in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon[1]. It feels as if it’s come full circle in Mr. Holmes.

As a child, I befriended a Baker Street Irregular at a used bookstore. He told me that the most interesting thing about Conan Doyle’s creation is that “everything is canon.” Whether it’s the ludicrous Basil Rathbone adaptations (where Dr. Watson is a buffoon for comedic relief) or the gritty 21st century updates of Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch, they all count in their ability to refract the different facets of Sherlock Holmes. The most stunning thing about Ian McKellen and Condon’s Holmes is that, for the first time, he feels complete.

[1] Nic Pizzolatto seemed to take this idea and do it on meth, which is not a good thing.

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