August 15th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Same-sex endgame comes startlingly into view

CENTENARY FEATURE B.A. Santamaria: his influence and influences

CANBERRA OBSERVED Union backing puts Bill back on winners' list

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Rise in coal use makes climate summit irrelevant

EDITORIAL Tony Abbott unveils new direction for government

ECONOMICS Higher consumption tax will bite in everyday bills

HISTORY Japanese invasion ends 400 years of Dutch rule in Indonesia

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Dawn's warning at a minute to midnight

MINING Labor strikes law enacted to stop vexatious litigation

INTERVIEW A politic apprenticeship: Greg Sheridan

PUBLIC HEALTH Needle exchange a nonstarter for prevention

CINEMA A twisting of the mind ... and the novel: Mr Holmes

BOOK REVIEW Notes on a younger self

BOOK REVIEW The 'Warburg Wire Job'

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A twisting of the mind ... and the novel: Mr Holmes

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, August 15, 2015

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. 

Ian McKellen is the elderly Mr Holmes

Mr Holmes is the new film starring Sir Ian McKellen as the great detective and based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin.

Mr Holmes opens with Holmes returning from a trip to Japan. It is 1947 and Holmes is 93 years old and long retired to a Sussex farmhouse where he keeps bees. He is infirm and has lapses in memory and concentration.

Holmes is aided by a housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), whose father was killed in the war, flying with the RAF. Mrs Munro is a respectable, unlettered young woman full of good feeling, but obviously a bit unnerved by her employer. Her son is sharp-witted and keen, and in time Holmes trusts him with the bees.

Apart from his bees and his fight against mortality, Holmes is concerned with writing. Of particular interest is a case he is trying to remember, his last case before going into “exile”. He knows something happened that changed him, but he does not remember what it was.

The case concerned a young husband, Thomas Keller (Patrick Kennedy), worried about his wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan). They have lost two children to miscarriages. Seeking a way to help his wife, Thomas encouraged her to take up the glass armonica – a unique instrument where the sounds are made by rubbing wetted fingers over glass rims, which produces a sound usually described as “ethereal”.

At first the music helped, but as his wife’s character changes Mr Keller becomes more concerned. He suspects that her music teacher, Madam Schirmer (Frances de la Tour), may be teaching her how to communicate with the dead. He enlists Holmes’ help to find out what is going on.

This case alternates in Holmes’ mind with his time in Japan, aided by his young host, Mr Umezaki (Hirouyuki Sanada). They are searching for prickly ash, a plant believed to have rejuvenating properties. All the while Mr Umezaki has his own reasons for wanting Holmes to visit.

The stage is set for a Holmesian meta-mystery: how will Holmes relate to the Munros and deal with his increasing infirmity? What was happening to Mrs Keller? And what happened in Japan?

The film is pleasant enough – artfully crafted and well performed, hitting all the right notes to show the humanising, and demythologising, of Holmes, his repression of his humanity in favour of abstract truth, and his redemption by love.

It’s all well and good, but disappointing when compared with its source. The novel is an acute and melancholy imagining of Holmes, one that captures something of his inner life. A Slight Trick of the Mind is haunting and dreamlike. It has at its core a meditation on suffering from the perspective of the great detective, the man who could solve crime easily but ultimately could not solve the mystery of life itself.

While aged, Holmes is not as infirm as he is presented in the film, suffering from falls and physically deteriorating. And nor is Roger so young, being in his early teens.

Holmes is still seeking to solve the mystery of the world, but now the solution eludes him. He is a solitary man who has isolated himself further. He is not an unfeeling robot, but he is a man of mental discipline who subjects his feelings to the same analysis as he once did tobacco ash.

The film is a typical and cliched story of an isolated, inhuman figure rendered whole by being open to others, with touches of romantic melodrama. Its happy ending is a complete change from the novel, as is its running theme of Holmes accepting the need to twist truths for the sake of others’ feelings.

The novel depicts a man who is whole and apart, who still feels, who has already found a way to deal with grief and loss. More, it shows a man always comfortable with deception for the greater good, but who still believes in the primacy of truth.

The film is certainly more palatable, more relatable. It has a clean structure and a neat resolution – but one that completely misunderstands its subject matter, or willfully misrepresents it. It is not just a matter of making the novel filmable.

The director is Bill Condon, who made Kinsey, another well-crafted picture that reinvented its subject to suit the director’s point. Likewise with his first collaboration with McKellen on Gods and Monsters, a fictionalised biopic about James Whale, the director of the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films.

Mr Holmes is a pleasant enough film, and worth watching. But for a richer exploration of Sherlock Holmes, read A Slight Trick of the Mind.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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