A slight trick of the mind makes for a great experience in the cinema.
Last year, the Baker Street Babes interviewed Mitch Cullin, author of the recently-published novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, still one of the most unusual Sherlock Holmes novels in existence. We enjoyed the novel and Cullin’s company, so we were thrilled when the film version of the book was announced (with a probably-wise title change to make the subject clear to filmgoers). I don’t live in a huge city, so my cinemas only just got the film, and to my delight, I finally had a chance to see it.
I’ve thought a lot about how to approach this review because Mr. Holmes is not a traditional Holmes film, and it doesn’t tell a traditional Holmes story. It’s nothing like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but it has an equally vast amount of contrast with everything that’s come before it in the Holmesian world.
I think I’ll just dive in with my favorite thing about the story: Mr. Holmes is for people who live with Sherlock Holmes on a daily basis. Films like Guy Ritchie’s versions or TV’s Sherlock and Elementary may be nontraditional in some ways, but they’re all written and produced with casual viewers in mind. Each one, in its way, periodically reintroduces the viewer to exactly who this Holmes chap is and what he’s supposed to be good at doing.
Mr. Holmes is, I would argue, not really for the casual viewer. It’s for the person who has lived with and loved Holmes long enough that he’s become not just a guy we’ve heard about once, but a part of our lives, an archetype within our imaginations who helps us understand the world and ourselves, a figure who, to us, goes beyond one traditional story format.
I can’t imagine Mr. Holmes being made even ten years ago, and if someone had chanced it, I highly doubt it would have been successful. But the world has changed, and many of us have embraced Holmes and interpreted him and re-interpreted him over and over for our times.
I am thankful to Mitch Cullin, Sir Ian McKellen, BBC Films, and Miramax for realizing that Holmes no longer has to stay in a box where he puts on a deerstalker, peers through glass, and solves a case (not to say that I don’t enjoy traditional stories and adaptations–they’re great). Writers have known this for a long time, but finally, someone dared to depict something new for us on screen.
The Sherlock we meet in Mr. Holmes is 93, retired, and preparing, quite obviously, for the end of his life. The myth of who he is has grown up around him, to the point that he can go to the cinema and see films about himself. The contrast of legend with reality serves to humanize the man Sir Ian portrays with such compassion and understanding.
I said above that the film isn’t a traditional mystery, but it does contain cases–three, to be exact. Perhaps it sounds strange to say that a film with three entire mysteries in it isn’t about mystery at all, but believe me, it’s true.
Or, rather, the real mystery that weaves through all the others and makes the film profound is the question of what is truly important in life and how we judge our actions and view the lasting legacies of ourselves and others. It’s about becoming whole.
If this doesn’t sound like a fast-paced thriller of a theme, it shouldn’t. The movie is slow-paced and jumps to three different places and times (with deft enough direction that it’s not confusing). Most of it concerns the internal workings of a tired 93-year-old mind. The magic is found in the slow untangling of the truth that sometimes, when logic fails, deeper truths of worth and love grow stronger.
Mr. Holmes is a poetic exploration. It asks a lot of questions and gives few answers, but the experience of the journey is a remarkably beautiful one. Cullin has said that he used the character of Holmes to explore his own close relative’s experience of aging and mind failure, and the marriage of concepts is seamless–it’s obvious the writer has intimate knowledge of the struggles of the aging mind, but Holmes never loses his essential Holmesness in the story.
There’s a great deal of sadness in Mr. Holmes, but there’s also hope–hope found in the eyes of a wise child who chooses to unsentimentally carry on the legacy of an old man, and hope in the idea that even the most set-in-his-ways person can learn and grow until the very last moment of life.
I’ll end on a personal note. Last year, my grandmother passed away after a long battle with dementia. Mr. Holmes reminded me of her, specifically of the strange contrast that happens when a soul begins to lose specific facts only to gain glimpses of glory.
The story picks up with the detective at age 93, long-ago retired to the rural area of Sussex, where he is haunted by an unresolved case from a half-century ago.
His partner, Dr. Watson, is no longer with him. And his mental acuity has bid him farewell, too. This is a Sherlock Holmes grappling with his own faded and tattered memory, whose powers of observation and deduction are not what they used to be.
A Slight Trick Of The Mind- The long-retired consulting detective who is still haunted by an unsolved case from 50 years ago. Holmes is losing his memory, and without his sidekick Dr Watson, he can only remember fragments of what has happened.
Ian McKellen to Play Retired Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon's 'A Slight Trick of the Mind'
Oscar winner Bill Condon is to direct A Slight Trick of the Mind with Ian McKellen to star.
The film details the story of a long-retired Sherlock Holmes haunted by an unsolved case from fifty years ago. He remembers only fragments: a confrontation with an angry husband, a secret bond with his beautiful but unstable wife. With his legendary mental powers on the wane, and without his old sidekick Watson, Holmes is faced with the toughest case of his life.
“It’s not a bee- it’s a wasp. Different thing entirely.”
So begins our introduction to the Great Detective in Mr Holmes. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of The Mind, the film follows a 93 year old Sherlock Holmes suffering from dementia as he tries to recall the details of his last case.
We are given a largely melancholy tone, then, as we witness Holmes struggling to cope with his deteriorating mind. Ian Mckellen’s performance is moving in its believability- particularly if (like me) you have lost elderly relatives. It was the little moments McKellen captured that mattered the most: the slight stoop in his walk, the disoriented expression when waking up, the gentle smile. All these moments almost made me feel as if I was watching my granddad on screen.
However, despite the serious subject matter, Mr Holmes still has a warm humorous undercurrent that we have come to associate with most Sherlock Holmes adaptations. The conflict between fiction and ‘reality’ is toyed with in a wonderful, light-hearted manner as Holmes fondly bemoans John Watson’s 'embellishments’ in his published works.
While Ian McKellen is the star, the film has a stellar supporting cast, including Frances De La Tour, Roger Allem and Laura Linney. A mention must also be awarded to Milo Parker for his stand out performance as the endearingly precocious young Roger.
Mr Holmes presents our beloved detective in a way that we may not be entirely comfortable with. We see an aging Holmes, a Holmes largely without his Watson, a Holmes who is often alone in the world. But, it is undoubtedly a Holmes who deserves to be seen and remembered.
“One should not leave this life without a sense of completion,” is Holmes’ advice. I’ll leave it for you to decide the truth of that. Regardless, Mr Holmes is a tale worthy of the cinematic treatment.
literally like that sherlock holmes film with ian mckellan is going to destroy me, i love sherlock holmes he is my child and bbc sherlock is bad enough but can u imagine??????????? sherlock???????? old and alone WITHOUT JOHN WATSON and his mind deteriorating and realising he was in love all his life but he never acted on it???????????? i am gone i am done this is the end i can’t even think about it
Watching people’s reactions to Sir Ian McKellen play Sherlock Holmes in “A Slight Trick of the Mind” is so hilarious to me. I’ve seen about fifteen posts speculating who’s going to play Watson, and who’s going to be Moriarty, etc. and I’m just like…
Oh honey no.
Go read the first ten pages of the book. Hell, just read the dustcover. And then understand why this experience is going to be nothing but heart wrenching agony.
I mean, I always say that the retirement era is painful.
But then there’s this pastiche.
(NOOOOOOOOO “A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND” NOOOOOOOO)