“But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs.”
My villa is situated upon the southern slope of the downs, commanding a great view of the Channel. At this point the coast-line is entirely of chalk cliffs, which can only be descended by a single, long, tortuous path, which is steep and slippery. At the bottom of the path lie a hundred yards of pebbles and shingle, even when the tide is at full. Here and there, however, there are curves and hollows which make splendid swimming-pools filled afresh with each flow. This admirable beach extends for some miles in each direction, save only at one point where the little cove and village of Fulworth break the line.
Mr. Holmes (Bill Condon, 2015)
So the conceit is that Sherlock Holmes is real and retired thirty-five years ago (from 1947) to Sussex, after a final, unsatisfactory case, a case that has been published by Watson and even filmed, but which Holmes cannot quite remember.
Holmes has one of those canons that is easily filled – how did he learn his skills? what are those cases we are told he solved but we’re not ready for? what did he do in the gap between “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House”? what happened to him after Watson put down his quill? And then there are the inevitable continuity errors that add further layers – was Watson shot in the leg or shoulder? why is Watson called James in “The Man With the Twisted Lip”? was Watson married twice? And despite an occasionally proprietorial estate – with little connection to Doyle, I believe – we have endeavoured to provide solutions.
So Holmes has been living on the South Downs (or edging into Romney Marsh at times, I suspect), forgetting. Forgetting and remembering is a theme – he remembers the case, he remembers dealing with Mycroft and a visit from Watson, he remembers his trip to Japan. He has forgotten coming out of retirement on the eve of World War One and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”. Meanwhile, Roger (Milo Parker), the child of Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) his housekeeper, cannot remember his father, killed in the Second World War.
Holmes strives to retain and win back his powers of deduction, so he can resolve that last case, and to train up Roger to take over the bees, as the son he never had.
The word we’re looking for is redemption.
Curiously, redemption through stories and through lying to others.
So, Holmes is either lying or has forgotten that he has written two stories already: “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”. The stories themselves tell us he disputed some of Watson’s story-telling.
We’re meant to forget this.
We have McKellen, reunited with director Bill Condon who did the James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters (1998) with him – McKellen, one of those actors who’s always seemed old to me. I remember his coming out on Radio 3 – in 1987? I recall seeing his one man show, Acting Shakespeare. I was lucky enough to catch his Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart. I gather he’s done other movies and a sitcom (but Michael Hordern is Gandalf). Laura Linney is divine in a somewhat thankless role. John Sessions and Philip Davies have brief cameos, Roger Allam a bit more screen time. Colin Starkey needs a better agent (or there are bonus scenes). Virtually everyone plays it straight – aside from good old Frances de la Tour who seems to have wandered in from a sitcom (although not, I guess, Vicious) when they couldn’t afford Miriam Margolyes. If the film doesn’t work, it’s at the level of plot, not acting.
And what worried me, pondering at a hidden unhappy ending of the deaths we will not see, was the prickly ash that Holmes has brought home all the way from … Hiroshima. And then ingested. As, indeed, has Roger.
Maybe they end up with super powers?