It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Victorian literature. This affinity, in tandem with being swept up in the phenomenon that was BBC Sherlock in 2010, led me to become quite the Sherlockian. I visited the “real” 221B Baker Street in London–twice–and have read and re-read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s old tales dozens of times. Naturally, I was very excited to watch Mr. Holmes as a nice entry back into Sherlock Holmes’ complicated mind. Overall, I was very impressed.
The bulk of the action takes place almost entirely along the shores of Sussex, England (an emotional component for me, as I studied abroad there) at Mr. Sherlock Holmes’ burrowed little cottage. The film opens following Holmes off the train after a visit to Japan for a plant known as prickly ash–which is meant to increase one’s cognitive abilities. Holmes is elderly, hidden away, and, of all things, minding bees in his yard. The film takes on a very personal, homey feel as opposed to a highly-charged speed race through London as Holmes rushes to solve the latest murder. Almost immediately, the viewer understands she is in for a completely different experience than that of any previous visual adaptations of Sherlockian lore.
If you are expecting to go into Mr. Holmes to find the quips and quirks of Benedict Cumberbatch’s stoic Sherlock, you won’t find them. Sir Ian McKellan’s Sherlock Holmes is quiet and contemplative; this film very well serves as Holmes’ “last bow” in a way many modern adaptations haven’t. The tone of the entire film is reflective and emotive, which might be hard for Sherlockians to grasp. We know Sherlock to be calculated, logical and sometimes quite cold for the sake of solving a mystery. In Mr. Holmes, however, the mystery to be solved is Sherlock himself. As a viewer and a fan of Sherlock Holmes as a character, I did not find this change in his demeanor disconcerting–rather, I found it necessary and effective in rounding out his character. As he approaches the end of his life, Holmes finds in order to feel truly complete and accomplished in all he has done, he must come to terms with feelings he’d locked away years ago.
I’m sure you are wondering where Dr. Watson might fit into this picture. On the contrary, Watson is almost entirely absent from the film. His absence is felt, however, and addressed; the moments he is referenced or shown are very subtle and poignant, reflecting the long, complicated history between him and Holmes. But the human component Watson brought to Holmes is certainly not cast aside. Instead, we have Holmes’ housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) who act as foils in different ways to Sherlock. Mrs. Munro is not an “educated” woman, but has the common sense and open tenderness Holmes lacks–or thinks he lacks–in himself. Roger is inquisitive and quick on his feet. The latter in particular functions as a Watson-esque someone off whom Holmes can bounce off his musings and ideas while also inspiring intellectual stimulation. Holmes and Roger’s friendship is portrayed brilliantly by McKellan and Parker respectively; indeed, Roger is a catalyst in Holmes coming to recognize his very human emotions. The very “homey” feeling of the film is emphasized by the fact that we mostly follow only these three characters in the whole course of the story.
Sherlock Holmes’ final “case,” then, is about humanity. It is about finding humanity within himself, appreciating it within others, and learning to let go of logic and calculations when necessary. We see a very vulnerable, human side of Sherlock Holmes in this movie that I would have never expected. In the same respect, though, particularly in flashbacks to Holmes’ final case before he quit the profession, we see a lot of his brilliance and uncanny knack for finding clues in the seemingly mundane. This is definitely the Holmes we know and love–but one who has loved and felt and lost, too; a fact with which in this film he is slowly coming to terms.
Mr. Holmes is very character-heavy, often using extreme close-ups and long bouts of conversational dialogue which can sometimes be tedious. But again, it is a personal film, about The Great Detective’s personal journey. Bill Condon does a wonderful job conveying all this, and the acting by all performers is superb especially in relating to the audience the key relationships in the film. Mr. Holmes takes viewers on an intimate journey and leaves you teary-eyed in the best (if most irrational) of ways.
Overall rating: 4/5