DVD Review: Mr. Holmes
Does one really want to watch a movie about a ninety-plus Sherlock Holmes, suffering from age-related memory loss and mourning the decline in his deductive powers? It would be rather like a film about a paraplegic Captain America or a Robin Hood whose arthritis left him incapable of using a bow and arrow. One doesn’t like to see one’s favorite characters laid low. Mr. Holmes had the makings of a depressing slog, so it is a surprise and a delight to discover just how engrossing, heartfelt, and touching the movie is.
Sir Ian McKellen portrays the elderly Holmes with remarkable skill, playing him as a dimmed but still-brilliant man desperately trying to shake off the physical and mental shackles of old age and to regain his former powers. Holmes has been retired for decades (the movie is set in the late 1940s), and now relies on his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney, perpetually nonplussed by her employer), and her clever young son, Roger (Milo Parker), who sees Holmes as a grandfather figure and wants to follow in Holmes’s footsteps. There are many rather affecting moments, as Holmes instructs Roger in beekeeping and teaches him to hone his observational skills.
Throughout the movie, Holmes wrestles with the shadow of a case he can no longer remember. The last case he had accepted before his retirement involved a man worried about his wife’s mental health, and this case is told in flashbacks, a bit at a time, as Holmes gradually pieces together his memories of the past, slowly learning a lesson that might have applications in the present day.
Another storyline features Holmes traveling to Japan and a still-devastated Hiroshima in search of an herb that might restore his mental powers. There, he meets a man whose future happiness might depend on questions only Holmes can answer.
The Holmes of this movie continually deals with the celebrity caused by Watson’s stories. In this film, Watson continually embellishes and fictionalizes Holmes and his characteristics, eventually turning him into a created figure quite different from the real man.
Sherlockians will note countless deviations from the original source material (The Lion’s Mane and His Last Bow play no part in this film’s continuity), but, as is often the case with pastiches of Sherlock Holmes, the character is substantially different from the original creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Other writers often feel the need to have Holmes wrestle with the unfathomable mysteries of the human heart, and ultimately conclude that emotions can sometimes be more valuable than cold logic.
It’s the terrific acting that makes the movie; McKellen, Linney, and Parker deserved more awards consideration. And no review would be complete without mentioning a delightful cameo by Nicholas Rowe, who played the great detective in Young Sherlock Holmes. Rowe reprises the role in a movie within the movie. Mr. Holmes is not canonical, but it is a surprisingly touching story with moving performances.