Mr. Holmes

As mentioned in my post on BBC’s Sherlock, countless portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and his super sleuthing ways have appeared on our screens since Conan Doyle’s creation of the classic character. Although “Mr. Holmes” could have been just another movie to add to the pile, I think it sees the story and the person of Sherlock Holmes in an entirely new way, and as a result is very deserving of recognition.

The film focuses on an elderly Sherlock, who has removed himself from his former crime-solving career, retiring to an isolated house in the English countryside where he lives with his housekeeper and her adorable (and adorably inquisitive) son, Roger. The cinematography in the movie is breathtaking, with sweeping shots of ocean and cliff that lend an atmosphere of serenity to Sherlock’s chosen abode for his final days. But inside Sherlock’s brilliant (though deteriorating mind), there is neither serenity nor peace, so haunted is he by the unresolved case that prompted him to leave his profession.

The story is beautifully and intelligently crafted, weaving together a series of flashbacks with the present narrative, as Sherlock strives to recall his last case despite the limitations imposed by his failing memory. A typical Sherlock Holmes case is replete with thrills and suspense. Our familiarity with this “mystery formula” creates an expectation that Mr. Holmes’ last case will have a similarly exciting and satisfying “aha!” moment, when all is revealed and those hazy clues are united in a brilliant line of reasoning. The clues in “Mr. Holmes” are certainly well put together and there is both satisfaction and closure, but in a way, the movie evades the need for this “aha!” moment. For once, Sherlock Holmes being brilliant and “right” is not the main object of concern.

In other words, the mystery is not the focus. Then again, maybe the mystery is the main focus, but it is a different kind of mystery: not of the sort we have come to expect. Rather than looking solely to plot, the movie is an exploration of the person of Sherlock Holmes. For Holmes, the greatest mystery, the mystery that is the most difficult for him to solve, is the mystery of the human person and in a sense, the mystery of love.

When I bring up “love,” I do not mean to invoke some romanticized notion of Sherlock or suggest that Sherlock has been deprived of or mystified by romantic love. By love, I am thinking more of a compassion or sensitivity towards people; a kindness, a selflessness, an ability to understand and help others as a result of understanding. This is what Sherlock lacks and it is this he seeks to find. In his final case, mere facts- hard, cold facts- were not enough (not on their own) to “crack the code,” and they were not enough to prevent tragedy or to produce good. As Sherlock begins to realize- a beautiful and profoundly moving realization- it is, as the old saying goes, “better to be kind than right.”

Another element that I think makes this movie so beautiful and of such high value is the way that it portrays the elderly. In the present narrative, Sherlock’s health- both physical and mental- is declining. His breathing becomes increasingly laboured, his appearance is marked by age and his movement is slow and wearied. His mind also begins to falter: he has difficulty remembering his own former experiences and he forgets the names of those close to him frequently. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes is losing control of precisely those mental faculties that made him Sherlock Holmes.

And yet this loss of ability is not equivalent with a loss of value. The movie treats Sherlock’s life and person with a beautiful and fundamental value, and furthermore, with dignity, a dignity that is his intrinsically and irrevocably. Even until the end he is capable of love, of compassion, of good, and his life is valuable though he remains mostly away from the world, only with two others and in a remote place.

The movie conveys this dignity through its slow movement and its patient and loving depiction of the aged Sherlock Holmes. It does not shy away from the Mr. Holmes who is “in decline.” Quite the opposite, it embraces the qualities that have come to him with age; it celebrates them; it imbues them with dignity. This is also shown through the touching relationship between Sherlock and the young Roger, who have much to teach each other despite their separation of many years. Both through the mystery of the human person that Mr. Holmes seeks to solve and the film’s very treatment of Sherlock’s old age and his inherent value, this film is a triumph and profound testament to the value and beauty of life of all kinds and at all stages.