Sherlock Holmes was always a bit of a put-on, director Bill Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher tell us in their film Mr. Holmes. They
even have the 93-year-old Holmes (Ian McKellen) tell us that himself. Holmes says flat out he always preferred a top hat to a deerstalker cap and a cigar to a pipe.
Even the Baker Street address, he explains, was an invention by Dr. Watson to keep gawkers away.
Yet the things that mattered most—the diamond-hard intellect, incredible powers of observation and impeccable deductive logic—were
absolutely real, in all of the fictive worlds created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his successors. So what happens when the greatest detective in the world begins to lose
his grip on his unique faculties?
This is the crux of Mr. Holmes, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. This quiet but gratifying film places
Holmes in 1947, living in his retirement cottage on the Sussex coast with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker)
. Dr. Watson is long dead. Mrs. Munro, a war widow, has a strained relationship with her curmudgeonly employer. Roger, however, has become Holmes’
boon companion, showing a mental acuity and enthusiasm that delight Holmes.
In retirement, Holmes keeps busy tending his apiary, which he cultivates for the royal jelly he hopes will slow the deterioration
of his mental processes. However, the royal jelly is no longer working, if it ever did, and as the film opens Holmes has just
returned from a trip to Japan, where the mysterious Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Samada) promised to reveal to Holmes the marvelous restorative properties of prickly ash.
Holmes is particularly anxious to regain his memory because he is trying to piece together his recollections of his final case from
nearly three decades before: that of Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), whose husband Thomas (Patrick Kennedy) hired
Holmes to trace Ann’s movements. Ann’s behavior became inexplicable to her husband after she suffered two successive
miscarriages. Watson’s version, in both book and movie form, played fast and loose with the facts, and Holmes feels a burning
need to recover those facts. (In a nice touch, the actor playing Holmes in the movie-within-a-movie is Nicholas Rowe, who played the teenage Sherlock in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes.)
The facts of the Kermot case, when Holmes finally recalls them, are heartbreaking, and explain why it was his last case. Nearly
as heartbreaking are the story of Umezaki, when Holmes deduces it, and a horrifying event that befalls Roger.
In the end, Mr. Holmes is not only a portrait of a great mind in senescence, but also of a man who discovers—late but still soon
enough—that human feeling and connection are more important in the end than facts and logic. The film’s pace may be too stately
for some, but Ian McKellen—who won an Oscar nomination for a previous collaboration with Bill Condon, 1998’s Gods and Monsters--is more than worth the price of admission. Moving at
a deliberate pace borne as much from temperament as from age, McKellen maintains a poker face that emphasizes the piercing
look in his eyes. His Holmes is an old fox in winter—a fox who may be forgetting some of his tricks, but who is still capable of
learning new truths in their place.
Milo Parker, a remarkable child actor, keeps pace with McKellen throughout Mr. Holmes and even steals some moments from
him. Their scenes together, presenting the wise master and eager pupil tending bees and going for dips in the English Channel, are the best in the film.
Joel Edgerton, in The Gift, presents a different kind of mystery from that portrayed in Mr. Holmes. A striking debut for
Edgerton as a feature film director, The Gift lulls us into thinking it’s going to be a standard psycho-stalker movie, but soon veers
off into unexpected yet totally credible directions.
Featuring an original screenplay by Edgerton, The Gift begins with Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) moving
to Simon’s home town in Southern California from Robyn’s home town of Chicago. Simon, a corporate security executive, is
smotheringly protective of Robyn, who suffered a miscarriage and a subsequent dependence on pills.
Simon and Robyn are shopping for accessories for their new house when Gordo (Edgerton), an old high-school classmate of
Simon’s, sees them through the store window. Gordo comes in and shakes hands with Simon, who at first doesn’t recognize
Gordo—or pretends not to. Gordo expresses joy at seeing Simon again, and Robyn, despite Simon’s assertions that he and Gordo
were never close, insists on inviting Gordo to dinner.
From here, it’s no fair to reveal any more of the plot, though a lot
of reviewers have. Some reviewers have slammed the film’s trailer, saying it reveals far too much. I don’t remember seeing
that trailer, and I certainly hope you haven’t, for The Gift is filled with heart-stopping yet mercifully bloodless twists and turns. It
is particularly interesting how Edgerton uses familiar horror-film tropes—including a scene with Robyn in the shower—and
then subverts the payoff a hundred previous movies have led audiences to expect. The true thrills in The Gift come from the
gradual unveiling of character, as Robyn, Gordo, and especially Simon are revealed to be quite different people from what we
assumed at the beginning. All that’s left is the film’s moral, which can be summed up as, “Karma’s a bitch.”
The acting in The Gift is uniformly impressive. Jason Bateman specializes in variations on the All-American-Guy persona,
ranging from beleaguered (Arrested Development) to abrasive (Bad Words). In The Gift, he begins affably, but masterfully
allows elements of malice to seep gradually through the façade. As Robyn, who proves to have more backbone than is apparent
at first, Rebecca Hall gives her most persuasive performance to date. Edgerton, for his own part, keeps viewers off-balance with
a performance that melds the sympathetic with the creepy, like a golden retriever risen from the dead.
Like Bill Paxton in his 2001 film Frailty,Edgerton shows himself
to have a promising future as a director of thrillers. I hope that, unlike Paxton, he follows up on it.
(Note: according to Wikipedia, there are at least eight feature films that bear the title of The Gift. Of the other films of this
name, I recommend Sam Raimi’s 2000 film about a psychic who helps the police to solve a grisly murder. Featuring a
distinguished cast including Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes, J.K. Simmons and a career-best Keanu Reeves, Raimi’s Gift combines supernatural
horror and character-driven poignancy to a remarkable degree.)