21 bees, Baker Street


Though Cannes is not what you would call an egalitarian film festival (few of them are), it did used to be the case (I haven’t tried it lately) that you could show up at the Palais, present a cheap business card declaring yourself to be the director of a fictitious film company, and you would, eventually, be presented with a low-level pass. This would get you into the odd gala screening, if you queued early in the day, and into the various pavilions, and into market screenings, which meant you could see a lot of films, just not necessarily the hot tickets. This suited Fiona and I just fine, and in this manner we were able to see Bill Condon’s GODS AND MONSTERS, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

So we were hoping MR HOLMES would be a worthy successor, and it just about is. Despite its leisurely narrative pace, it does create a series of compelling mini-mysteries for the aged Holmes (Ian McKellan) to solve, from the forgotten conclusion of his last case, lost in the mists of incipient senility, to the problem of who or what is bumping off his bees.

Mitch Cullin’s source novel picks up on a few references in Conan Doyle to Holmes eventually retiring to Sussex (like Richard Lester) to keep bees (unlike Richard Lester). Adding in the idea of Holmes declining mental powers allows for a compelling set of subplots, two unfolding in parallel flashbacks, one in present tense. Like GODS AND MONSTERS, it’s quite moving. Modest budgetary means are well-mustered so the film never strains to convince us of its period setting (though I thought the Japanese scenes maybe needed something — I’m not sure what — more to really convince us we weren’t on British soil).


Sadly, I don’t think McKellan’s Holmes is as good as his James Whale in GODS AND MONSTERS. We have less of an idea of what Whale was like, of course, and McKellan’s lack of physical resemblance to the great director wasn’t really a problem. In a sense, Whale, who is visible and audible only in a couple of seconds of ONE MORE RIVER and in various stills, is less real than Sherlock Homes. Somehow I can’t imagine a young McKellan playing a young Holmes, so I struggle a bit to see an older one playing an older one. Also, McKellan has gotten very keen on pulling faces, chewing his lip, tonguing his teeth, etc. That’s probably quite appropriate for the pensive, anxiety-prone senile Holmes, but he did so much of it in his last turn as Gandalf that it feels less like characterisation and more like actorly mannerisms.

Still, he can work our emotions as of old, and he’s backed up by an excellent Laura Linney and wunderkind Milo Parker, who shares most of the key scenes with McKellan. He’s pretty amazing — he has to do everything Brendan Fraser did in GODS AND MONSTERS only backwards and in heels while being much, much smaller.


One real issue — the film is seriously over-edited. The deliberate pace cannot be converted into a hurly burly by intercutting like mad. There’s a lack of variety to the rhythms, with everything rushed on and offscreen, where a contrast between longer shots and more hurried one would have been much more exciting and appropriate. It’s apparent at once, where a scene in a train carriage is framed to let Holmes resemble a Tenniel illustration for Through the Looking Glass. But the shot is whisked away before we can enjoy it, we get barraged with closeups for a bit, and then the shot returns for another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance.

Never repeat a master shot. If anyone can tell me why, I’ll give you a jar of honey.

8 Responses to “21 bees, Baker Street”

  1. Is it because it makes the viewer feel like the film has gone back in time, or is in some way at one remove and now reporting on events that have happened? (Will it be heather honey?)

  2. Not quite. After all, you can repeat closeups all you want. But you’re quite close.

  3. Is it because you’re giving the impression that nothing has changed?

  4. That’s the one! A master shot sets up a visual relationship between your characters and if you come back to it at the end of the scene, you’re saying the action of the scene hasn’t changed anything. Although you can move the characters about and get the effect of change that way. But a new shot will generally be stronger.

  5. La Faustin Says:

    Suppose you WANTED to say that the action of the scene hasn’t changed anything? (Idealist challenges status quo with fiery speech; all present blandly ignore this faux pas.)

  6. You could use the same shot for that, but a dramatic scene always presents change, in a way. The idealist, having discovered that challenges are ignored, is defeated, an option for positive change is shut down, so the scene at the end is a little more depressing than it was at the beginning, and your choice of shot might reflect that.

  7. DBenson Says:

    Just saw and enjoyed. Being barely literate about editing (I know a dissolve generally means time has passed), a few Sherlockian notes:

    — I took the train shot as a parody of a defining Paget drawing: Holmes in deerstalker and cape, leaning forward to lecture Watson. Here he’s stiff and silent, facing a woman and a child … two species he wasn’t too good with.

    — McKellan may not evoke classic Holmes, but that was actually stressed: Watson created a Holmes that in some ways reduced the original to a counterfeit. His identity had been compromised well before his memory began to go.

    — One inside joke: When Holmes goes to see his avatar in a cheap movie, it’s Nicholas Rowe … star of Spielberg’s “Young Sherlock Holmes.” I didn’t catch it till the credits; nor did an audience that chuckled at fairly arcane Sherlockian references.


    — The central case evokes “The Veiled Lodger”, a genuine if eccentric Holmes story. In that, Holmes and Watson are summoned to hear what amounts to a murder confession by the title character, a veiled woman who lives in seclusion. She and her lover had conspired to stage her lion tamer husband’s death, but things went wrong and her face was mauled. She wanted to tell her story before taking poison. Holmes goes into saintly bully mode — “Your life is not yours to take!” She later sends the poison she intended to drink to Holmes, who regards it as a victory. Once could imagine that being the ending Watson wrote to absolve Holmes for failing to prevent the actual outcome.

    — Roger’s near-death similarly echoes “The Lion’s Mane”, another genuine story Doyle wrote in Holmes first person, set in Sussex. In that one, a seeming murder is actually the result of an encounter with a toxic form of sea life. Holmes’ solution saves the innocent.

    — A little sad that, in this telling, poor old Watson never actually understood Holmes. The comforting subtext has always been that Watson’s often comic humanity — expressed via bungling, a weakness for damsels, and a very conventional sentimentality — implied some humanity in his friend. For “Mr. Holmes”, it was necessary to deny Holmes that connection so humanity would still be a mystery so late in life.

    — The central mystery also evoked “Agatha”, a fiction about Agatha Christie’s fabled disappearance. In that, reporter Dustin Hoffman tracks the missing author (Vanessa Redgrave) to a spa. It begins to appear she’s plotting the murder of her husband’s mistress.

  8. Thanks! The Paget illustration is clearly bang-on, and a nice reference.

    We recognized Nicholas Rowe, having seem him a bit more recently. His co-star is the great Frances Barber, a close friend of McKellan’s IRL.

    We also enjoyed the taxidermist’s shop, run by Ambrose Chappel, a reference to The Man Who Knew Too Much. As in the Hitchcock film, it’s used here strictly as a red herring, a shop window the heroine pretends to be looking in while waiting for Holmes.

    The movie didn’t seem to know what to do with Watson. A throwaway reference to H&W eventually becoming estranged led nowhere, and seemed like a hangover from something perhaps more developed in the book. Also, Holmes’ eternal loneliness comes almost from nowhere — of course he’s without a significant other in the stories, but never seems to feel the lack. And Watson has just moved out, so he’s bereft on account of that, but it didn’t seem enough to answer the plot’s sudden, urgent need for him to be a perennially lonely figure.

    But that’s mainly an issue of plot mechanics — the meotion of it worked.

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