Mr. Holmes: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

Movie Review:  Mr. Holmes

soon holmesIan McKellen’s turn as the aging super sleuth Sherlock Holmes has been doing brisk business at the box office.  Initially appearing in only 300 theaters, it has still managed to make the top ten earnings list two weeks running.  That’s no small feat for a foreign film that is aimed at an often forgotten demographic:  the elderly.  When I was lucky enough to catch the film at my local independent cinema, I was impressed by two facts:  First, the theater was crowded.  I haven’t seen one of their theaters this busy since I saw 12 Years a Slave.  Second, the median age had to be about 50 years old or older.  Clearly, this slow but stately period drama has struck a chord with audiences of an older persuasion.

As cinemas across the country continue to add the Mr. Holmes to their roster, you may be wondering if it is worth your investment.  I would say yes, with reservations.  Mr. Holmes has three major threads it attempts to weave together throughout the film.  Two of them are very good, but the third feels forced.  If you enjoy lush period pieces that are sustained by dialogue and character, you’re in good company, though some aspects of the narrative feel a little false to the character we know as Sherlock Holmes.

Mr. Holmes (2015)

He doesn't seem happy to be home...
He doesn’t seem happy to be home…

At 94 years old, fabled detective Sherlock Holmes is engaged in a mortal struggle with his greatest adversary- the loss of his keen mind due to aging.  30 years prior, he fled London after a case he was working went poorly, resulting in tragedy for a young couple.  Haunted by this failure, Holmes has retreated to the country side in order to live a reclusive existence tending bees and writing the occasional scholarly text.  Without Watson or the ever-patient Mrs. Hudson to indulge his peculiarities, Holmes has become taciturn, melancholy, and a rude, especially towards Mrs. Munro, his housekeeper who is a single mother of limited education and financial means, and with her intelligent but temperamental son, Roger.

Roger holds Holmes in some degree of awe, having dutifully studied Dr. Watson’s accounts of the adventures he shared (and embellished) with Sherlock.  When Holmes returns from a mysterious trip to Japan, Roger attempts to engage him in details of his life’s work.  He is only partially successful in drawing Holmes out of his shell.  Eager for more details, Roger breaks into Sherlock’s private study and reads an incomplete case file.  Holmes finds out the intrusion and confronts the boy, but is mollified by Roger’s innocent desire to know more about detective work.

holmes lostThe unfinished case is actually the stinging failure that caused Holmes to flee London, and he is trying to write a proper account of the story since Watson’s version has begun to replace his own fading memories of the events.  Sherlock, though his logical powers are still potent, has pronounced periods of memory loss and seems unable to match names to faces, even being forced to scribble Roger’s name on his shirt cuff in order to remember who the boy is!  With Roger’s assistance, Holmes begins to re-trace his memories and put down in writing his own final statement about the fateful tragedy.

Loss of Focus

Mr. Holmes is actually the story of three separate events in the life of the great detective.  The first, taking place three decades in the past, is the case of a young woman distraught because of several miscarriages whose husband hires Holmes to discover where she disappears to every day, and for what purpose.  The next is Holmes’ journey to Hiroshima where a Japanese botanist has promised him use of a plant that may repair his broken memory.  The third is the contemporary story of Holmes and the Munro family, and concerns how the erratic sleuth first alienates and then comes to depend on them as a surrogate family.

The film likewise has three themes that bind the actions together:  Sherlock’s approaching senility and his struggle against the daily humiliations of aging; the fluidity of experience, and how remembrance and story-telling help us to understand and shape those events; and the need to escape the solitude of normal life, which afflicts genius as heavily as it does ordinary people.

A double edged sword, more time developing Roger and Sherlock's friendship means less exploring the more interesting aspects of the mysterious case.
A double edged sword, more time developing Roger and Sherlock’s friendship means less exploring the more interesting aspects of the mysterious case.

The amount of balls continuously held in the air by the film help to create tension and sustain interest, which is necessary in a film which can become often slow and introspective.  The focus on aging, memory, and the particulars of Holmes’ final case are intriguing and artfully handled, whereas the aspects of the story regarding Roger, Mrs. Munro and their relationship to Holmes and each other feel rushed and melodramatic, often leading to emotional outbursts that seem to come out of the blue.  The three characters seem to be constantly overreacting to each other, as if some monumental rift has occurred between them that we are never allowed to experience. The other themes of the piece are beautifully expressed on screen through both flashbacks and McKellen’s expressive style.  They stand on their own and make a compelling story which is ill served by the additional weight of a mundane family drama.

A Rare Glimpse

One of the reasons I dislike the sudden change in Holmes’ character from a solitary curmudgeon into a devoted grand-father figure to Roger is because this theatrical melodrama takes away from the real emotional heart of the piece.  This films is an elegy about the injustices of old age, and how senility steals from both the great and the small.  Many know the heartbreak of watching a loved-one slip slowly beneath the waters of forgetfulness; watching a nearly super-human paragon of logic and cleverness become daft and fearful adds a galling sting to that sadness.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls...
Ask not for whom the bells toll…

Ian McKellen’s performance gives us an insight into the mind of an extremely intelligent man who is having to make peace with the fact that time is pulling his once-keen faculties apart much like the ocean savages a crumbling sand castle.  At first indignant and hopeful, we watch as he becomes fearful and despondent, until finally he is able to come to terms with his new situation.  He cannot solve the case of his impending senility, but he can manage the affair with dignity, and perhaps win small victories each day.  We’re witnessing a formerly invincible general as he is improbably forced to retreat.

The Final Revision

More mystery, please.
More mystery, please.

Mr. Holmes is an excellent movie which suffers from some small, but exasperating flaws.  Mr. Holmes has a thoroughly engaging detective story, where we see our well loved Sherlock using his usual wit and skills to solve a troubling case, though not to his satisfaction.  The film also has a sentimental story about an aging Sherlock coming to grips with his need to rely on others, which is a bit overblown and doesn’t feel organic.  But the true center of the film is the story of a man faced with the impossible prospect of losing his mind, and how he can manage his slow descent in a way that does not rob him of his dignity and personhood.

Layers upon layers.
Layers upon layers.

Very few movies are willing to treat the elderly with respect and without sentimentality.  Mr. Holmes, thanks in great part to an Oscar worthy performance by Sir Ian McKellen, manages to tell a story centered on an aging character which explores the unique struggles that face older persons.  For that alone, it is a towering achievement in modern film.  The poignancy with which it is handled makes one almost forget that the hero is Sherlock Holmes, as in the end this film becomes a story about human limitation and needs that are universal.  Having the worlds greatest detective grapple with them just adds another layer of complexity to an already engaging film.


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