Detective characters are often stand-ins for writers, and sometimes vice versa. The work of solving a mystery, like writing a tricky story, involves putting disparate pieces together into some form that logically holds together and seems true, no matter how improbable. Adapted from the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, Mr. Holmes puts the world’s greatest detective in the role of a writer. Elderly and with a flagging memory, Sherlock Holmes tries to unravel the mystery of his final case and why it forced him into retirement on a Sussex farm where he tends to bees.
The idea of an aged Sherlock Holmes trying to unravel the mystery of his own memory is a fascinating set-up, especially given how elusive and illusory our memories can become as we get older. Mr. Holmes re-teams director Bill Condon and star Ian McKellan, whose careers both received a major boost in 1998 thanks to the film Gods and Monsters. The always-good Laura Linney is also in the film as Mrs. Munro, Sherlock’s maid and caretaker.
However, even with all that promise, there’s something about Mr. Holmes that seems so elementary.
Director: Bill Condon
Release Date: July 17, 2015
In Mr. Holmes, both Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were real people. They solved actual cases reported in the news, and Watson wrote them down as popular novels to be sold to the public. The sleuths were celebrities, and at the start of the film, a woman who sees the retired detective in passing seems starstruck. She asks no one in particular if that man going by is the real Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is annoyed by the notoriety since not everything in the books was true. The deerstalker cap, the calabash pipe–pure invention. But by writing about the last case, Sherlock wants to set the record straight, at least for himself.
That case that triggered Sherlock’s lapse in memory was a case he did without Watson present. It involved a woman who seemed demonically possessed to play a glass harmonica. We get snippets of the case throughout Mr. Holmes, which intercuts the past being written/remembered, the present in post-WWII Sussex, and a flashback to a recent trip to Japan. In the present day, the curmudgeonly Sherlock tends to his beehives while widowed Mrs. Munro looks on downtrodden. Her son Roger (Milo Parker) is a Sherlock Holmes fanboy and idolizes the detective and his shtick. While in Japan, Sherlock’s mind is so addled by age and regret that he needs to write his host’s name on his shirt cuff just to address the man during dinner.
There’s a line by the writer Clive Barker (an executive producer on Gods and Monsters) that seems apt here: “I write to remember, and I also write to forget.” We jot things down so we’ll remember them for later or to coax recollection, but we also write things down so we can finally forget about them, sort of like deleting files. In Mr. Holmes, the process of writing is about forcing out memories and being able to let the memories go. Here the Barker line is lent a sense of absolution. By solving his own human mystery through the process of writing, the detective may be able to die in peace.
The big issue isn’t the elements of Mr. Holmes but rather how sloppily the elements come together. The three different threads of the story don’t braid nicely. Rather than complementing and enhancing one another, they intersect and interrupt and then just run semi-parallel. I felt like they were each their own discrete Elderly Sherlock Holmes adventures, though ones that happen to be faintly contingent upon one another–the difference between “stuff that happened” and “story.”
The sections of the film that deal with Mrs. Munro and Roger are warm and well-acted, but almost too sweetly so, and its class drama seems only half-explored. The Japanese segment seems dashed off at times, its significance, even when revealed, a trifle in the conscience of the detective. The primary interest is the remembrance of Holmes’ final case, but even that winds up dissatisfying. The solution is too convenient, as if the final piece of the puzzle falls into Holmes’ mind without the effort of the conscious mind. It’s a lazy cop out that lacks the surprise or sense of invention that’s found in the better stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.
McKellan at least shines, and he keeps Mr. Holmes watchable even when the script treads water. He portrays Sherlock a cold and quick in his final glory days, dashing too. In Japan, McKellan plays the detective as haunted but still trying to pass as his old self. As much as he hates the pop culture idea of himself, he’s trying to play the part for his host. It’s in the present, in the thick of his case of memory, where Holmes is the most human and vulnerable. He dodders like an old man at moments, and he weeps for his lack of wits. He’s no longer himself, and he can’t figure out why. What a dreadful mystery for any detective, and what a horrible block for someone writing a memoir.