Mr. Holmes (2015)

My wife and I were recently on vacation and decided to spend one of our evenings taking in a movie. There is so much crap in the theaters currently, and so much that I just was not familiar with; I was really at a loss as to what to see. We kind of randomly picked Mr. Holmes as the only PG rated movie in the theater - and in the knowledge that we'd get at least a decent performance out of Ian McKellen. Thus we went to see Mr. Holmes not out of any real prior interest in the film but kind of by default. We were both pleasantly surprised both with the plot and with Ian McKellen's depiction of the famous Sherlock Holmes.

Mr. Holmes (PG, 2015) takes us back to World War II England, where a 93 year old Sherlock Holmes is living a quiet retirement in the country. His life is fairly mundane; he spends his days tending bees and researching the restorative effects of various kinds of natural jams and honeys. His only company is his housekeeper and her young son, Roger. Sliding into senility, Holmes struggles to recall the details of a case that has long troubled his conscience. His connection with Roger, the servant's son, helps provide him with an anchor to help him maintain lucidity as he struggles against his creeping memory loss.

The ambiance and whole mood of the this film were very engaging. Ian McKellen gave a performance that generated an extreme amount of depth for the Holmes character; I was very impressed. His co-star Laura Linney also handled her part admirably. The little booger that played Roger was kind of annoying, but hey, that's child actors for you. 

This is not a detective story per se, though there are many instances of the classic Holmesian deductive reasoning the character is famous for. The film is more a reflection on the often forgotten human element in crime stories; the mystery can be solved, the crime prevented, the criminal captured, but there can still be a real human toll that is hard to quantify. In the film, Holmes struggles with the details of a case he successfully solved, but whose outcome he was profoundly disappointed with. This dilemma from the past comes back to haunt him as he fights to find closure before his mind fails him.

Some times we do not like seeing a beloved character in his old age. I'm thinking of Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Nobody wants to see Indy in his dotage. But this is because Indy was supposed to be an action hero, and there is something pathetic about a man in his seventies trying to play the part of an action hero. But Sherlock Holmes was never locked into a particular age-based genre. I can imagine Holmes young, and I can imagine him middle aged, and even on the cusp of retirement. I had no problem relating to a 93 year old Holmes, especially because this film does not try to pretend that an obviously aging character is still capable of his previous exploits (e.g., the latter Death Wish films, when we were supposed to believe Charles Bronson was still capable of wiping out whole crime families when he himself was on the cusp of death); rather, we see how age has mutated Holmes, how he struggles to deal with the onset of senility. Mr. Holmes embraces age, and not in the banal, stupid, cliche manner of some movies (Indy saying, "I'm too old for this!" before punching out a Russian solider). In Mr. Holmes we have a movie that truthfully presents both the possibilities and challenges of aging.

I was not certain about the moral of the film, however. The movie attempts to explore the relationship between logic and truth, on the one hand, and goodness and love, on the other. Holmes' great unresolved case that haunts him for the rest of his life has to do with a situation where truth and logic prevailed but goodness and love failed. Holmes realizes that a triumph of logic at the expense of love is hollow, but I am not so certain what solution the film proposes; the Catholic would naturally seek a reconciliation between these concepts. The film, however, seems to suggest that goodness and love should trump truth and logic, such that one should be willing to sacrifice truth in exchange for goodness or love. Holmes seems to toy with this idea at the end of the film. 

I do not know if I am reading it right; perhaps not. But it seemed that this was what the movie was trying to say. It would have been much better had Sherlock contemplated a solution that reconciled truth and love rather than trying to set up a dichotomy between logic and love. In that sense, it is almost Kasperian in suggesting that love can be detached from truth. But as I said, I am not positive that was the message. It was left ambiguous.

I also want to mention one other thing - many films that take up these grand fictional characters tend to want to debunk or deconstruct the larger-than-life characters they portray. We get attempts to show the "historical" Robin Hood, or the "real" King Arthur, or a "more human" side of Christ. Of course, these attempts end up robbing the characters of everything that makes us identify with them, causing these efforts to fall flat; this is why Errol Flynn is infinitely more entertaining as Robin Hood than Russel Crowe could ever be. Mr. Holmes does not fall into this trap. We see an aged Holmes, a developed Holmes, a different Holmes - but he is still easily and pleasurably recognizable as the Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with all his particular quirks - even looking at Laura Linney's clothes and being able to tell her right down to the last detail what she has been up to that day. And here I applaud director Bill Condon's fidelity to the Sherlock Holmes canon, at least in this respect.

Aside from the ambiguity of the moral of the film, Mr. Holmes was excellent. 2.5 tiaras.