‘Mr. Holmes,’ Sherlock Faces His Own Mortality


This Christmas Day I did not watch a holiday film as I was rather spent as far as Christmas cheer goes. There’s only so many times you can hear “Jingle Bell Rock” on the radio before you want to kill it with some heavy metal (Exodus, Heathen, even the jazz thrash band Atheist!). And while Home Alone is a must for laughing at criminals suffering Looney Tune style injuries, the film’s reflection on the human condition is the same old expert John Hughes manipulation found in all of his films; a sentimentality that goes stale after repeated viewings (and who the hell can afford those huge brick homes found in Hughes films?!). If you want a film that speaks to mortality I would suggest Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes.

The film concerns an aging Sherlock Holmes who cannot recall the details of his last case, the one that caused him to abandon his career and isolate himself in the countryside as a beekeeper. He develops a relationship with the bright son of his housekeeper who helps spark important memories for solving the past and in the process also brings back the pain he has to confront if he’s to retain his sanity.

Die hard Sherlock Holmes fans may not like the depiction of the super sleuth at his most vulnerable. It brings us all back around to the uncomfortable reality of aging and confronting our own mortality, which includes the decay of our faculties. This is most heartbreaking for a man of Sherlock Holmes’ intellect and talents who built his career on detecting and using his vast library of memories to match up clues.

While a sad and somber portrayal, I found Mr. Holmes a relief from the hero genre. I enjoy a good hero flick and I am a longtime Sherlock Holmes fan as I began reading the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when I was in Junior High, but I’m not against multiple interpretations of the character as so much time as passed since publication. And I have had to separate the mythical detective from the outright gullibility of the author and his seduction into spiritualism and fairy hoaxes. My preference is to discard the author and let Holmes live on his own as he is reincarnated again and again through films, TV series and new stories. Because the character of Holmes, while eccentric, is a man of integrity guided by science and observation (and a little opium). If Holmes could have met his author he would have chided him on his superstitious nature and dismissed his interests in the talking dead. The dead talk plenty through observation, a spirit board is not needed.

Ian McKellan’s performance is brilliant as usual. He jumps from an old Holmes to an even older Holmes giving us a sense of time by varying his movements from relatively quick and spry to labored and struggling for enough oxygen in his breath. The greatest fear I have and I would suspect most people have is losing their cognitive abilities, this is especially true of freethinkers. We do not want to disappear from the discourse and revert to infancy, staring off into space trying to remember names and places that we should have at our tongues but they will not come no matter how much we beg our brains. Thankfully, we can Google most anything we forget. It’s just a sad fact of life that time winds down our ability to think and that even the best of thinkers will suffer.  …Hopefully, future medical science will fix that; maybe stick a flash drive in my head.

I should not forget the other lesson we can pull out of the film which is about the nature of truth. Truth can have devastating effects, as Holmes finds out, and truth does not mean a person will find relief. It may lead to more hopelessness where the answer is a shortcut nobody would wish to happen. This is a regret for the older Holmes. Our hero is able to handle truth and its consequences, one consequence being that it can leave you utterly alone–an alienation from the rest of the world who willfully wallows in lies for emotional survival because if they don’t they may just walk off a cliff like lemmings (which is another lie since lemmings don’t act like that). A half-truth may be kinder than naked reality. I say that as an atheist who has seen that some people cannot handle the end result of truth and you have to make the decision to tread carefully and nod politely when they speak with a glazed grin about the most ridiculous of beliefs. The fear is that you will shatter their worldview and without any equipping for the harshness of permanence they may crack or simply never speak to you again. Our world would be a better place if we confronted the reality of death early on instead of perpetuating fantasies, a brainwashing that tells us life is not worth living if we do not go on and on and on under an all seeing watchman.

Now if you read this far you may think Mr. Holmes is a real downer of a movie–it isn’t. As a whole, it is, in my opinion, life affirming. But you do have to travel a sad road to reach a renewed hope.

SIDENOTE: A film within a film. As this story takes place late in Sherlock Holmes’ life he is able to watch a film version of one of Watson’s fictional adventures featuring himself. In the film within the film, he is is played by actor Nicholas Rowe–the actor who played Sherlock Holmes in the eighties movie Young Sherlock Holmes. A nice juxtaposing tribute to a past adventure film of the detective as a young man with Mr. Holmes which is about the hero as an old man.

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