The Somber Mr. Holmes

The new Sherlock Holmes film offers a sobering reflection on regret, purpose and the legacy we leave behind.

By Robert Moeller Published on July 22, 2015

For my money, one of the best actors alive today is Sir Ian McKellen. Sure, I may be a sucker for Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings films. And yes, the opinionated British thespian espouses political and cultural positions that differ greatly from my own. But there are few performers around who, in the best possible way, can so effortlessly consume any scene they are in and leave the audience unable to notice anything else being said or done around them as Sir Ian can.

When McKellen is on the screen, you believe he is the character that he’s portraying. He makes you want to believe.

And thus is certainly the case with his latest effort, Mr. Holmes, which opened in limited theaters around the country this past weekend. In it, the 76-year-old actor occupies the titular role as Sherlock Holmes. But this alternative universe created by director Bill Condon is not that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, rather a fictionalized “real world” version of the famous detective whose long-time business associate (and friend), Dr. Watson, was the party responsible for writing (and embellishing) the true-to-life cases Mr. Holmes solved as a younger man.

The movie introduces us to a 93-year-old Holmes who has just returned from a secretive trip to Japan. As we meet him, we learn that Holmes has been retired and living in a home by the sea for the past 30 years. He has become a crabby old man who suffers from increasingly frequent bouts of senility. Only begrudgingly is he willing to show the most basic of social graces to his new housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her young son, Roger.

Realizing that his time on earth is drawing to a close, Sherlock Holmes decides that he must resolve that final case and put to bed some of the demons in his emotional past. With the help of Roger (and a series of well-orchestrated flashbacks), Holmes embarks on a journey into the painful backstory that caused him to spend the final decades of his life hiding in a remote country farmhouse with little more than his hives of bees to keep him engaged with the world around him.

The film is fantastic. The acting is stellar across-the-board, with Laura Linney co-starring as Mrs. Munro and Milo Parker as Roger. The backdrop of rural Sussex along the English Channel is gorgeous to look at. With a PG rating, Mr. Holmes is a family-friendly movie that all ages can enjoy.

But there are some heavy themes dealt with in Mr. Holmes and a few disappointing motifs used to tell the intricate story.

As for heavy themes, the most significant of these is the reality that Sherlock Holmes’ will not be around much longer and is losing his memory along the way. In our culture today, “growing old” is the last thing anyone wants to admit. Everyone wants to stay young and does anything they can to project that such a thing is even possible (or desirable).

The ever-pragmatic Holmes is grasping at holistic straws in an attempt to find a medicinal remedy that will give his mind some of its sharpness back. Even his logic-first way of living can no longer put aside the reality of his mortality. And this changes Holmes. It forces him to deal with his own life, his own actions, and the squandered opportunities at love and deeper relationships.

Despite the fact that Sherlock Holmes never thinks to take that biggest (and most important) leap into the arms of a loving, fulfilling and forgiving God, he does recognize the selfishness with which he has conducted most of his life. And this grieves him.

As for an example of the “disappointing motifs” that I mentioned above, when Mr. Holmes is shown traveling to a post-WWII Japan in search of a memory-enhancing medicine, we are confronted with the nation’s fall-out from the dropping of two atomic bombs. This is a fair and interesting perspective for a filmmaker to offer his audience, but like so many filmmakers working in Hollywood today, Bill Condon fails to provide any context or history for the bombing of Hiroshima. Granted, this is a small portion of an otherwise solid film, but to introduce such an important and controversial event in human history for no other reason than to make moviegoers feel guilty for Harry Truman’s decision seventy years ago this August is, shall we say, unfortunate.

It is often what is left out in such cases that speaks louder than what a director decides to include.

Manipulating history aside, Mr. Holmes includes much to be admired. Go enjoy Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes. It is worth your time and money this summer.

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