Directed by Bill Condon
Ian McKellen reteams with his “Gods and Monsters” director for the equally delightful “Mr. Holmes,” my favorite new film of the week (and it’s a good week).
This is one of the most unusual Sherlock Holmes stories in that it’s Holmes when he’s almost completely off his game – given that it’s the game that normally distinguishes him. But years have passed and Holmes has retired to a small cottage near the coast, where he’s slowly slipping into senility and taking care of his beloved bees. But one case bothers him, largely because he can’t remember the details – he knows something must have gone badly because it’s the case that caused him to give up his work.
He’s tended to by a new housekeeper, wonderfully underplayed by Laura Linney in the kind of role that seems so simple on the surface that it’s likely to get overlooked, but which deserves praise. She’s bothered by his deteriorating condition – she thought she had signed on to cook and clean, not to pick a grown man off the floor and nurse him. She also has to contend with her son Roger who still sees the brilliant and famous detective and who manages to help bring that side of Holmes back to the surface as he relives his last case. Young Roger is played perfectly by Milo Parker who has to balance conflicting emotions in Roger’s love for his mother, as well as his resentment of her simple ways, against his hero worship for a man who’s now a shadow of his former self.
“Mr. Holmes” does multiple things exceptionally well. On the one hand it’s a character study of a man losing his sense of self as his memories and body fail him in old age. It does that well even without the character happening to be Sherlock Holmes, which just adds to the poignancy of that loss and draws us in as the audience eager for one more case to be solved despite his limitations. And in that sense, Roger is our on-screen proxy – coaxing him in all the ways we would if we were in the cottage with him.
However, that loss of sense of self inherently elevates the story to another level. It’s a topic I find especially interesting and I can imagine using this film in the classroom in the future. Compare this story to the biographical details in “The Theory of Everything,” about the life of Stephen Hawking, and you see the difference between a genius losing his motor functions and a genius losing his genius (albeit that one is obviously fictional). And I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of other disabilities but I’m always fascinated by people who have disabilities that don’t only impair specific function(s) but which fundamentally change who they are or how they see themselves. Another recent film that comes to mind is “Words and Pictures” in which Juliette Binoche plays a career, working artist of some repute whose degenerative rheumatoid arthritis leaves her unable to grip a paintbrush, taking not only her profession and livelihood but also her most vital form of expression and identity.
It’s no great surprise that McKellen does all of this well. At 76 himself, he’s aging gracefully and as sharp as a tack and would likely be as devastated by a decline of this nature as his character. But, in addition to flashbacks to both recent and relatively distant periods, he manages to bounce between scenes in which Holmes in the film’s present appears to age and withdraw during periods in which his mental acuity is diminished. He’s his old self when he feels sharp but a stranger to himself when he doesn’t – and McKellen captures that duality and sense of disconnection.
“Mr. Holmes” is an easy film to heartily recommend to fans of Sherlock Holmes, of McKellen or Linney (or future fans of Milo Parker), to fans of period dramas, to those dealing with dementia of a family member, or just fans of great movies.
Marvel’s latest outing is the pleasantly light “Ant-man” which manages to take place in the same timeline as “Avengers” without feeling weighed down by that scale or dynamic. It’s more like the lighter moments of “Iron Man” than the earnestness of “Captain America,” for example. Paul Rudd plays the title character as a down on his luck burglar (not a robber!) who’s separated from both good fortune and his ex-wife (another waste of the better-than-this Judy Greer) and daughter. But he has the skillset that Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is looking for in somebody who might don his old shrinking suit. It’s a fun film and I enjoyed it, helped by a neat blend of a tiny Rudd inserted into macro photography rather than a total reliance on artificial backgrounds. It may not seem as grand as some of the other Marvel entries but they don’t all need to be, and it leaves room for future integration and, perhaps, more backstory.
At the raunchier end of the week’s films, Amy Schumer is very funny in Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck” about a woman who sleeps around without ever actually sleeping. She’s essentially the female version of a character more typically (and less judgmentally) portrayed as male, following in her Dad’s lust them and leave them footsteps. I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this film, with kudos going to the performances of several athletes – including John Cena as one of Schumer’s lovers and especially LeBron James as best friend to her eventual love interest Bill Hader. James clearly isn’t afraid to mock himself and Hader is neat in a straighter role than might be expected. “Trainwreck” also manages to insert a fun film within the film, with Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei, that we see go from theatrical release to video release. Also of note are Colin Quinn as Schumer’s ailing and obnoxious father, Tilda Swinton almost unrecognizable as her caustic boss, Brie Larson as her more traditional sister, and Ezra Miller as her curious intern. “Trainwreck” is lewd, crude and very funny and a good candidate for ensemble cast awards.