This past weekend I sat, along with the rest of the uber fans, in an almost full theater watching with baited breath while an old, white-haired mentor passed on the mantle to his younger protégé, along with his love of insects. Apparently some big comic movie was playing in the theater next to us though, because I kept hearing all the explosions and other sound effects through the wall. Thankfully, that didn’t detract too much from the experience of watching Mr. Holmes.
Mr. Holmes is based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, and stars the always wonderful Ian McKellen as the titular detective, Sherlock Holmes. This is not the Holmes we are used to seeing, however – the keen eyes and sharp wit of the once-confident sleuth have been replaced by oncoming dementia, and a now 93-year-old Holmes sets out to document his final case before time erases a lifetime of mental acuity.
The reason Holmes is driven to document his last bow (so to speak) is because the details of the case still haunt him. Now retired to the picturesque coast of Sussex, Sherlock Holmes spends his time managing bees and researching ways to slow the loss of his once-formidable mental powers. He experiments first with bee jelly, then finally a tea concoction made from a prickly ash plant (no seven-percent-solution here). Nothing seems to be slowing the onrushing destruction that age brings, and even the smartest mind in fictional history cannot stand against Father Time. Holmes strives to get his final case down on paper anyway, haunted by the feeling that he has in some way failed. He just cannot remember how.
Enter young Roger Munro (ably played by Milo Parker) as the son of Mr. Holmes’ housekeeper (Laura Linney, a.k.a. Truman’s wife). Initially put off by Roger’s energy, Holmes begins to take on a sort of father figure role, feeding him tidbits both about his last case and the study of bees that feed Roger’s mind and imagination. Roger in turn begins to unlock corners of Holmes’ mind that had previously been lost to him, allowing him to flesh out additional details of his last case.
The case itself revolves around a woman (no, not THAT woman), and as Holmes puts it: “When you are a detective and a man visits you, it’s usually about his wife.” The man, Thomas Kelmot, believes that his wife, Ann, is up to something mysterious, and he wants Holmes to figure it out. Holmes begins to follow Ann, and observes her taking a variety of actions that could add up to a nefarious end. The gaps in Holmes’ memory leave him unsettled and afraid that something was not right about the way the case concluded — something that would have driven him into retirement on the Sussex Downs.
Ultimately, Mr. Holmes is less about telling a compelling mystery and more about examining the character of Sherlock Holmes. Don’t go in expecting a barn burner where the game is constantly…well , you know the rest. The central premise isn’t actually overly complicated, and most viewers will likely figure out most of what is going on before Holmes does himself (which is sort of the point, I believe). What the movie does well is deconstruct the mythos of Holmes, forcing him to face his previously-untouchable ego and self-reliance. The Holmes of Doyle’s mysteries was nigh-infallible, portrayed as a confident, distant person of great mental prowess and little emotional depth. He was technically proficient but of little “earthly good” as the saying goes. While he occasionally made exceptions for his clients, in most cases his desire to prove the truth, to establish that he was “right,” outweighed his compassion. In the film, this character trait begins to crumble, as he is faced with the decisions he made in the past and his influence on the young Munro boy.
The sedate pace set by the film allows viewers to see past the “mystery” and begin to instead focus on the soul behind the deerstalker and pipe, a troubled soul that has hidden his emotion behind his intellect. Ian McKellen was born to play this role, and it’s unfortunate he came to it so late in his career. To be fair, one can be excused for thinking maybe McKellen was born to play just about EVERY role, whether it be a mutant master of magnetism (how’s THAT for alliteration?), a wizard, or a consulting detective. I wish we would have had more opportunities to see McKellen as Holmes, but I will enjoy this one film for what it does best – demonstrate that for every act of intellect and reason, it is important to balance them with acts of emotional compassion and empathy, or else we risk losing why the solution is so important in the first place. Outside the confines of some dusty, sun-speckled apartments above Baker Street, we are not tasked with solving a whodunit murder mystery, but rather the mystery of the human condition, and that requires equal parts reason and emotion to unlock.