Mr. Holmes (2015)

Director: Bill Condon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve been lately reading the works of Jonathan Swift and commentary thereon, a man whose self-written epitaph (“Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift … where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart.”) proclaimed his vigorous engagement with human suffering. A Protestant minister and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, Swift’s works cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of his belief in the doctrine of original sin, which was weakened by the growing ascendancy of Protestant rationalism, and his attempt to restore through his writings a vision of human nature as corrupt, licentious, and irrational, and in need of religious instruction and redemption.

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Now having viewed Mr. Holmes, I am tempted to think that Mitch Cullin, the writer of the novel on which it is based, may be a revivalist, though of a much milder temperament, in the Swiftian mold. He chose Sherlock Holmes, the proto-machine man representing the triumph of the just-completed Industrial Revolution and embellished upon thereafter to reach the near-android superman we see in many depictions today, to spin an emotional tale of human flaw, guilt, and redemption. Despite the current, apparent return of preindustrial religion, deities and their emissaries are decidedly out of fashion in pop culture as redeemers. Instead, it is women who die for men’s sins. So it is even for Sherlock Holmes, a man who needs women like a fish needs a bicycle.


Machines, even well-built, reliable ones, need maintenance and invariably break down after long years of service. Thus, the Mr. Holmes in this emotion-laden story set in 1947 must needs be old, indeed, 93 years old to malfunction in the manner required by the story. But before we can prepare ourselves for his diminished capacity, we must know that we really are dealing with Sherlock Holmes. We first meet him (Ian McKellen) on a train clutching a furoshiki-wrapped box from his recent trip to Japan. A lad is watching an insect buzzing near the window and is just about to rap on the glass when Holmes tells him not to. Like all those stunned by Holmes’ prescient abilities, the boy asks how Holmes knew he was going to do that. The boy’s mother interjects rather unhelpfully, “He loves bees.” Holmes replies scornfully, “It’s not a bee, it’s a wasp. Entirely different thing.”

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As later Holmes scribe H.F. Heard envisioned, Holmes, no longer a sherlock, lives in quiet isolation near the White Cliffs of Dover, where he tends bees. He is tended to by the latest in a series of housekeepers, war widow Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). He greets his bees, disturbed to note that some are dead, and tells Mrs. Munro that he wants her to put a tincture of prickly ash—the contents of his box—in his food. Having found royal jelly unable to restore his seriously faulty memory, he has brought the plant back from Japan in hopes that it will do the trick. Indeed, he has written a monograph on the two substances, which we see in flashback handed to him by his host in Japan, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), for his autograph.

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The more important flashback Holmes seeks is to his last case, the one that caused him to retire 30 years earlier. The now-dead Dr. Watson wrote it up as “The Lady in Grey,” but Holmes is convinced that John got it wrong. He decides to write his own account of the case to set the record straight and set his mind at ease, but that is easier said than done. In dreams and free associations, bits and pieces of the case come back to him, but large chunks remain utter blanks. Roger, his own memories of his father manufactured by photos of them together when he was a toddler, joins Holmes on his quest to save the bees and finish his story.

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We are told again and again that the Sherlock Holmes of fame and fortune bears little resemblance to the real man; he never wore a deerstalker, avoids smoking a pipe because it would be unseemly for the real Holmes to seem to be “dressing up” as the fictional Holmes, and lived at another Baker St. address. Presumably, the image of him as an emotionless deducer of facts is incorrect as well, because McKellen’s Holmes is very grandfatherly toward Roger, a bright child Holmes begins instructing in the ways of bees and deductive reasoning, and feeling a vague guilt about his last case that he needs to resolve before he dies.

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The only problem with recreating a fictional character, especially one as iconic as Sherlock Holmes, is that there is no real Holmes at all to provide with a “corrective.” It all becomes so meta—and Mr. Holmes takes this to the nth degree by showing Holmes attending a hokey movie version of “The Lady in Grey” and laughing at the movie Holmes, played by Nicholas Rowe, star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)—that our impulse is to reject this latest iteration, however more realistic it may be to the life of a very elderly, well-off man. Do any of us really want a touchy-feely Holmes?

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Condon and his cadre of screenwriters, including Cullin, do what they can to offer us helpings of the investigative Holmes, but they aren’t very nourishing. We guess that Holmes suspects something is not right with Mr. Umezaki when Condon’s camera lingers on the monograph’s inside cover just a little too long. Dips into the past, as the last case slowly rises from the fog of memory, show Holmes merely following the lady in grey, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), around until he easily deduces from the information he obtained from his client, her husband Thomas (Patrick Kennedy), what she’s up to. At the same time, it should not have been hard for Holmes to figure out what was happening to the bees, and the fact that he doesn’t opens the door for a melodramatic crisis that would not have been out of place in the movie’s version of “The Lady in Grey,” giving McKellen’s Holmes a chance to get overwrought and Linney to scream “I’m his mother!” at the childless, wifeless old coot.

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It was a nice touch to walk Holmes around postwar Japan, with its mix of G.I.s and women in Western and traditional garb alike. A visit to the charred remains of Hiroshima, where Umezaki found the prickly ash, is too conveniently and offensively set up as another marker of Holmes’ personal growth. Holmes’ harshness with Umezaki is much more in character and forms one of the more effective scenes in the film. In addition, charred Hiroshima, like the rest of the film, looks simply too calculatedly designed to attract rather than repel. The film is altogether too pretty, evoking a tasteful Masterpiece Theatre bauble for transfer to the small screen that one of its coproducers, BBC Films, no doubt intends.

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Parker, as a pint-size sidekick, is pretty appealing as he absorbs everything this old genius has to offer and becomes a bit too full of himself in the process. McKellen produces an indelible portrait of a man on the brink of death, his infirmities etched in painful detail, aided by some exquisitely realistic age make-up, though I was distracted trying to decide if the liver spots on his scalp were real. Alas, Linney’s role is pallid, and even her considerable skills cannot make a silk purse out of it. Poor Frances de la Tour has to play the standard-issue gypsy role of Madame Schirmer, who teaches the exotically outdated glass harmonica. Only Morahan is able to infuse her Christlike character with some complexity, making it almost believable that Holmes would carry an odd mix of eros and moral culpability around with him for so long. Sadly, Mr. Holmes has taken a powerfully evocative character and neutered him in an attempt to show that men are people, too. Mr. Swift would not have approved.

  • Charles Kroeger spoke:
    20th/07/2015 to 8:16 pm

    I think when one is 93 one is completely neutered. Ian McKellan just played it as he should know or at least sense. I’m sure this went over the director’s head. Old age has its axioms that become painfully apparent the older one gets (if you still have your mind that is)

    kind regards

  • Roderick spoke:
    20th/07/2015 to 10:25 pm

    This sounds just about as squishy as I feared. It’s hard to imagine a Holmes movie more depressing than the Downey Jnr ones, but this could do it…

  • Charles Kroeger spoke:
    20th/07/2015 to 11:51 pm

    Holmes and Bond they’re always with us. You can’t put too much energy into (in my opinion) in determining the literary bits since they’re not there.

    The Robt Downey Jr Holmes, are wonderful comedy. that scene where they sink the ship in the Thames is better than Laural and Hardy destroying that house. I don’t care much for the Cumberbatch cyborg Holmes that seriously fizzled out. I did like the connection of Dr Watson being wounded in Afghanistan some things never change. I liked the first episode where Watson has to save Holmes with his (no service Webly here) Glock although I’m not sure of the actual weapon as such but it wasn’t a Webly.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/07/2015 to 9:14 am

    Charles – By “neuter,” I presume you mean sexually. That was not the sense I meant, nor do I think that the extent of softening the Holmes character undergoes in this film is in keeping with his lifelong character. I will agree that his emotions may have gotten more labile, as often happens with infirmity, but I rather think he would be more like Heidi’s Alm Uncle than Santa Claus. I think the current updated versions of Holmes are completely unimaginative and a further assault on intellectualism. I’m with Rod in finding them depressing in the extreme.

  • Charles Kroeger spoke:
    21st/07/2015 to 6:41 pm

    No actually I didn’t presume a sexual context.

    93 is seriously old from my experience with the aged. There are exceptions like Studs Terkel who remained articulate and thoughtful to the end but for the rest they’re not the life of the party.

    Imagining Sherlock Holmes at 93 I would still think he would have been pretty with it. I guess he isn’t using his 7% solution of cocaine in this film, we can’t have that. But from your description of Holmes I would have thought An organic, albeit somewhat addictive, (like coffee) stimulant would be just the ticket. ‘Labile’ means changed and when you’re 93 everything is changed. How that displays in a person of great age has many reasons some not in the books.

    I don’t know Heidi’s Alm Uncle as by way of comparison to Santa Claus but I did enjoy your suggestion that Holmes needed a woman like a fish needed a bicycle, that was quite good. But remember, Mrs Hudson was always part of the Holmes and Watson milieu. She even plays a more active role in the recent cyborg Holmes played by Benedict Cumbedrbatch where Watson ejaculates to the spacy Holmes, “Mrs Hudson was assaulted by an American.”

    Everyone knows ofcourse that Holmes knows nothing about women, and his brother Mycroft even less. Holmes would rather go over the Reichenbach falls locked in a mortal embrace with Moriarty than ply his troth to some woman equal to his ‘methods.’ Conan Doyle was a Victorian after all.

    Intellectualism as such is nebulous to me although I have a good idea of the education and intellect required to be an intellectual and I’m impressed by the issue of these individuals more than their designation as such. However, I would be interested to hear a further illumination of what constitutes an assault on ‘intellectualism’ in regard to our thread here, the latest adaptation from the Conan Doyle lexicon of stories.

    One of the important indicators of civilization to me is an abundance of ironic humor imbued with an institutional sense of tolerance for things outside the norm. Of all the predominately English speaking countries just now, I would say for those values, America comes in last. Britain although as they become more like (US) the paragon of efficient capitalism, they are beginning to falter in this important resource too, but even so, they still squeak into first place, closely followed by Australia then Canada and New Zealand.

    Anyway, I plan to go see Mr. Holmes I think I will like him labile or not. I also keep bees, the one stable thing in a changing universe.

  • Yann spoke:
    22nd/07/2015 to 1:48 pm

    Sorry, have to nitpick, it’s : Ian McKellen – seems to be quite a common mistake.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/07/2015 to 2:13 pm

    Quite right, Yann. Thanks.

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