I took a respite from the summer blockbusters and saw Mr. Holmes the other day; and what a wonderful film it is. I have been anticipating this film since I first heard about it. Not only because I am a lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes, but also because I loved Sir Ian McKellen’s prior film with director Bill Condon: Gods and Monsters, which has similar themes. I am so glad that I didn’t wait for the blu-ray, or that Miramax didn’t delay the release of the film until Oscar season.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay for Mr. Holmes is based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and it’s the tale of Sherlock Holmes (McKellen) at age ninety-three. Holmes retired from the detective game thirty years ago, and now spends his days tending to his bees in the Sussex countryside. His longtime friend and unofficial biographer, Dr. John H. Watson, passed on sometime back, and so has pretty much everyone we know from the stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes’ only regular companions these days are his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, (Laura Linney, terrific as always) and her young son Roger (the outstanding Milo Parker).
As I mentioned earlier, Holmes has retired, but he has one last mystery to solve: remembering why. In flashbacks that take place just before the events in the film, we see Sherlock during his trip to Japan. He is there to meet with Tamiki Umezaki, (Hiroyuki Sanada) a man who that knows of a native plant, prickly ash, he claims helps stave off memory loss.
Holmes often complained about how Watson embellished events in order to excite the readers. He is quite certain Watson changed the resolution to his final case, and he wants to set the record straight once and for all. He hopes the properties of the prickly ash, along with the royal jelly he collects from the bees, will help him regain his memory.
A second set of flashbacks, that take place just after The Great War, are about that fateful final case. Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) calls upon Holmes in the hope that the great detective can solve the riddle of his wife’s pecular behavior. Her demeanor changed drastically after she suffered her second miscarriage and the doctor informed the couple that they should give up trying to have a child.
Holmes takes the case and proceeds to follow Mrs. Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) around London. I’ll say no more about that particular plot thread because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Trust me, there is one scene during this portion of the movie that is the best among the many powerful scenes in Mr. Holmes.
In some ways it’s a shame that McKellen has never played the role of Sherlock Holmes before. You would have thought that an actor of his talent would have been courted many times over the years, but that seems not to be the case. I have to admit that before I heard what the film was to be about, I was really hoping that Patrick Stewart would play Watson. I am such a nerd.
Mr. Holmes is far more than a mystery movie. That is, if you define mysteries as a case that needs to be solved. The film is also about the mysteries of friendship and companionship. It’s also a meditation on the subjects of loneliness, memory, and truth. It may seem like an odd movie to quote at a time like this, but I am reminded of a line from Insurgent, in which Tris says, “Truth without compassion is cruelty.” She’s right, you know. Sometimes it is better to spare someone’s feelings than it is to be honest.
To go a bit deeper, in some ways, Mr. Holmes is a meta-commentary on the character of Sherlock Holmes. As readers of the fifty-six short stories and four novels written by Conan Doyle, we take every word written to be canon, but…
Within the stories themselves, Watson has been proven to be a somewhat unreliable narrator. Therefore, when a film or television series takes liberties with “canon,” are they rewriting Conan Doyle, or Dr. Watson? More importantly, does it really matter? It’s going to take someone far more intelligent than myself to figure that one out.