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.