Home > Reviews > MR. HOLMES – Carter Burwell

MR. HOLMES – Carter Burwell

mrholmesOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Mr. Holmes is a quiet, thoughtful film directed by Bill Condon, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, which features the famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes as a 90-year-old man looking back on his life in the aftermath of World War II. Sir Ian McKellen plays Holmes, long retired from his career as a sleuth, and now living simply on the south coast of England with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). As his mental health begins to deteriorate due to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the increasingly frustrated and cantankerous Holmes struggles to recall the details of his last case, 30 years previously, the outcome of which led directly to his retirement; the only bright spot is his growing paternal relationship with the bright and inquisitive Roger, who he is teaching to tend to the bees in his apiary.

By and large, nothing much happens in Mr. Holmes. It’s a small scale film that gets lost in its details; it ruminates on old age, and explores the necessity of the literary embellishments that have followed him round throughout his life, but concentrates mainly on the relationships between Holmes, Roger, and Mrs. Munro, and how they develop as a result of the revelations about Holmes’s last case, as well as the details of a secondary plot involving Holmes’s recent trip to Japan to procure a rare herb that would, hopefully, help with his failing memory. Condon’s direction is measured, the cinematography by Tobias Schliessler makes the green English countryside look soft and appealing, and the score by Carter Burwell is intimate and intelligent.

This is the sixth film Burwell has scored for Condon, after Gods & Monsters in 1998, Kinsey in 2004, the last two Twilight films in 2011 and 2012, and The Fifth Estate in 2013. This director always seems to bring out the best in him – even more so than the Coen brothers – and Mr. Holmes continues the trend. Burwell’s score is written for a small chamber orchestra with special emphasis on various woodwinds, a harp, and a glass harmonica, the latter of which speaks directly to a plot point in the ‘last case’ Holmes is trying desperately to remember. Burwell describes his own score as one that “largely settles into a more reflective mode, but remains restless. Because of his age, Holmes’s hope for redemption is dripping away like sand in an hour glass, and the music plays his desperate investigation of the mystery of himself.”

The main theme, first heard in “Mr. Holmes,” conveys several emotions simultaneously, a testament to Burwell’s skill as a dramatist. It has something of a playful quality through its use of various plucked instruments, but also has a dream-like, hypnotic effect, almost as though it represents the fog of forgetfulness through which Holmes is seeing the world, while the gently floating woodwinds dance lightly over the top in a way which conveys a palpable sense of regret. It’s subsequent performances in cues like “Ann’s Plans,” “Now We Can’t Leave,” “Two Such Souls,” and the morose “An Incomprehensible Emptiness,” illustrate how Holmes’s fading mental faculties are deeply intertwined with the fates of Mrs. Munro and Roger.

Meanwhile, the eerie tones of the glass harmonica provide the backdrop for cues like “Prickly Ash,” “The Glass Armonica,” and the tension-filled “Always Leaves a Trace,” which underscore the flashback sequences of Holmes’s ill-fated last case. The haunting tones of a shakuhachi bamboo flute give the mournful performances of the main theme in “Holmes in Japan,” “I Never Knew Your Father,” and especially the devastating “Hiroshima Station,” a flash of geographic specificity. Elsewhere, parts of “Investigating Mr. Holmes” have a slightly jazzy inflection, mainly by the way Burwell introduces a prominent plucked bass into the mix.

Interestingly, “The Other Side of the Wall” features both the glass harmonica and the shakuhachi together for the first time, while “The Wasps” accompanies one of the film’s most powerful scenes. The conclusive “The Consolation of Fiction,” at over five minutes one of the longest and best cues of the score, blends a melancholy final performance of the main theme with some more moody shakuhachi textures, before concluding with a hopeful, almost idyllic quartet for cello, clarinet, piano and harp, which is quite lovely.

Throughout the score many of Burwell’s compositional idiosyncrasies are present. Burwell often writes in unusual keys, with unique chord progressions, and often concludes thematic statements with a three-note flourish, a little calling card which has followed him throughout his career, going all the way back to the mid 1980s. For years, the appeal of Burwell’s music eluded me – all I could hear was this monotonous, grinding bass note, over which he would layer some other anonymous instruments which quickly got lost in the haze. Recently, though, I have begun to appreciate his unique musical perspective much more, and I have grown to enjoy what he does a great deal, with his carefully-placed musical statements and cultured lack of Hollywood showmanship.

Anyone who requires non-stop action in their film music will undoubtedly find Mr. Holmes to be rather dull, for there is none to be found here. Burwell’s precise instrumental combinations and stately themes illuminate a series of cues which offer a deep contemplation on life, loss, and aging, but very little in the way of energy. As a piece of relaxation music, or as a musical reference point for the excellent film it accompanies, the score succeeds perfectly, and it will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Burwell’s wholly personal compositional style, but you probably have to already be such an admirer, or to have seen the film, to appreciate it’s subtleties. Thankfully, I fall into both these categories, and as such I thought it was excellent.

Buy the Mr. Holmes soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Mr. Holmes (3:00)
  • Prickly Ash (1:52)
  • Holmes in Japan (0:55)
  • The Glass Armonica (1:40)
  • Always Leaves a Trace (1:55)
  • Hiroshima Station (1:15)
  • Ann’s Plans (2:42)
  • A and Bee (1:33)
  • I Never Knew Your Father (1:48)
  • Now We Can’t Leave (1:07)
  • Investigating Mr. Holmes (1:40)
  • Two Such Souls (5:52)
  • An Incomprehensible Emptiness (3:05)
  • The Other Side of the Wall (1:45)
  • The Wasps (2:55)
  • The Consolation of Fiction (5:36)

Running Time: 38 minutes 47 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2015)

Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by Todd Kasow. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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  1. November 18, 2015 at 5:32 am

    Excellent job of describing an excellent score and picture. I felt, having seen the picture twice that the armonica playing drove her mad and she took her own life as a result of it.

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