Although every effort has been made to prevent spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Mr. Holmes (2015) or read the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.
Last year, I was standing waiting for a bus when one passed by (not the one I was waiting for) with a poster on the side, advertising a new film that was about to be released. The poster was plain white apart from a very well dressed and sour faced Ian McKellen. The title of the film was Mr. Holmes.
‘Oh, a new Sherlock Holmes film.’ I thought, my interest piqued. ‘I must remember to make time to go and see that.’
Suffice it to say I did not remember and, whether it was because of my own poor fortune or because the film was inadequately publicised, I did not see hide nor hair of that film again until this very year when I was perusing Amazon for something to watch and it recommended this little gem to me. The reviews on Amazon were generally good but there were also enough negative reviews to give me doubts. However, being a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and knowing that Ian McKellen’s acting is always a joy to watch (no matter how bad the rest of the film is) I decided to give it a chance.
In this film, Sherlock Holmes is now in his nineties and is struggling with his failing memory. He has long since retired to a farmhouse in Sussex where he lives in relative solitude apart from his housekeeper, her son and the bees he now keeps. Because of his failing memory, he cannot precisely remember how his last case as a private detective ended; however, he is certain that the now deceased Watson’s novelisation of it cannot be correct because it portrays Sherlock as having solved the case triumphantly, as he always does. Sherlock cannot accept that he would have retired except after a terrible failure, and so, with the encouragement of his housekeeper’s son and consumed with guilt over something he cannot fully recall, he tries to write the story of the case as it truly happened. Meanwhile, his housekeeper is growing increasingly restless with her role as Sherlock’s housekeeper-come-nurse and resolves to move to Portsmouth with her son, who has grown very attached to Sherlock. There is also a sub-plot concerning a Japanese man who lures Sherlock to Japan in order to confront him about the disappearance of his father, for which he blames Sherlock.
If you’re looking for a ‘who dunnit’ or another exciting instalment of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sherlock goes on no adventure in this story, nor is there a particularly mystery to be solved (unless you count his attempt to remember what he has forgotten). Unlike more traditional Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Holmes is gently paced and driven by its key themes: regret, ageing, death and senility. I know that probably makes it sound like quite a miserable film, but in reality I found this film to be surprisingly light-hearted and sweetened with a light dusting of humour and sentimentality.
This film is particularly concerned with giving us a glimpse at the real Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to the ‘character out of a pantomime’ he feels he has become through the novelisations and dramatisations of his various cases. Indeed, Sherlock himself appears keen to distance himself from that character. For example, there is a reference at one point to the fact he does not have his deerstalker or pipe. The reason for this, he claims, is that the deerstalker was a mere embellishment and that he prefers a cigar to a pipe; especially now that the pipe has become nothing more than a ‘prop’. It is also revealed to us that 221B Baker Street was, in fact, not his actual address but a deliberate attempt to mislead fans and tourists who were intent on visiting him.
As well as his obvious trademarks, his own personality is also very different from the character we are used to. The writers (and, I should add, McKellen himself) have done a fantastic job here of showing us the other side of Sherlock, without making him a different person altogether. His paternal feelings towards his housekeeper’s son, for example, seem to be a far cry from the cold hearted mystery solving machine that we are all so familiar with. In spite of this, he still retains his uncanny ability to tell everything a person has done simply by looking at them and his philosophy that the truth will always be uncovered by careful analysis of the facts. While he does retain a certain bluntness and an apparent cold heartedness, this seems to be little more than veneer (a thin one at that) which he uses to distance himself from difficult feelings. His warmth towards his housekeeper’s son, the empathy he shows towards his client’s wife and his regret over her death and the deaths of his friends make him seem altogether more human.
His attitudes towards death strikes me as particularly important. He approaches his own looming demise with an apparent nonchalance and claims never to have mourned the dead – bearing in mind that this is set after the death of John Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Mrs Hudson, all of whom were key figures in Sherlock’s life.
I can’t say that I’ve ever mourned the dead, bees or otherwise. I concentrate on circumstances. How did it die? Who was responsible? Death, grieving, mourning; they’re all commonplace. Logic is rare (Mr. Holmes 2015).
This air of indifference is typical of the traditional Sherlock; in Mr. Holmes, however, it sounds quite hollow. The fact that he was powerless to prevent his client’s wife from killing herself, despite recognising all the facts, has affected him deeply – to such an extent that it drove him to retirement. He also regrets that, after breaking off contact with Watson, he never had a chance to say goodbye to him before he died. When his housekeeper’s son is nearly killed by a swarm of wasps, he sees all the evidence of what has happened and, uncharacteristically, assumes it must have been his bees that were to blame (at least at first) rather than notice that the evidence clearly implicates a nearby nest of wasps. While most of us might consider this a normal reaction to finding a boy lying bruised and unconscious next to a hive of bees, it is rather atypical of Sherlock Holmes. The film also ends with him setting up memorial stones for everyone he has lost (or at least, everyone we have heard of anyway).
All in all, this is a enjoyable and easy to watch film but I would certainly caution any lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan that Mr. Holmes is best enjoyed if you approach it with absolutely no preconceptions about what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. It is a very good piece of cinema but it is not a typical Sherlock Holmes film by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it try to be. It’s not a mystery. It’s not an adventure. It’s a drama and a pretty decent one at that. Approach it as such and you will probably come away satisfied.