Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Mr. Holmes

Title: Mr. Holmes
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Jeffrey Hatcher, Mitch Cullin
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Milo Parker, Hattie Morahan
Release Date: 24 July 2015

Length: 104 min
Rating: PG
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Watch: Amazon Instant Video
Buy: AmazonGoogle shopping

What IMDB has to say:

An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes, deals with early dementia, as he tries to remember his final case and a woman, the memory of whom still haunts him. He also befriends a fan, the young son of his housekeeper, who wants him to work again.

What I have to say:

I knew it was going to be a great movie when I heard about it. The premise was Ian McKellen meets Sherlock Holmes, and what could be more perfect? But I could never have predicted the seamless, moving piece of artistry that is Mr. Holmes. Moving along with an easy grace aided by paradisaical scenery and a wonderful score, Mr. Holmes delves into the regions of memory, reality, human relationships, and loss. The main character may be the remarkable Mr. Sherlock Holmes, but the story told by the film is universal, and the chords it touches exist in every heart.

First, the aesthetics. The film is perfect. With masterful cinematography, a score that is light but warm and never intrudes into the story, and a subtly clever script, the plot moves along seamlessly with a grace that is almost breathtaking. The transitions are so smooth they feel like a continuation of the story and the viewer is hardly surprised, and the pace moves slowly but steadily on with a measured step that feels natural and uncalculated. The acting is brilliant on all counts but never overdone. And pervading the whole film is a quiet warmth that grows slowly but steadily on with the story, and over and through everything is a soft but thoughtful sweetness. When the film ends, the viewer breathes out a sigh of contentment.

Next, the content. Thinking back over the themes of the film, I am awestruck at the way in which the filmmakers weave these strands through the story and bring them out the other side completely changed in the eyes of both the characters and the viewers. And yet the way in which they bring this change about is so subtle and gradual that the change doesn't come as a surprise and, in fact, you hardly notice it at all. It's only thinking back over the film afterwards that I realize all that changed from the beginning of the film to the end. There are also so many subtle little echoes throughout the film, one or two of which I noticed in the moment, but most of which I didn't notice until I found myself thinking back over the film later.

Memory. The film plays on memories in so many ways. The premise of the movie is Sherlock Holmes struggling with memory loss near the end of his life as he tries to remember his last case. Gradually, the memory begins to unfold, and each time Holmes remembers a little more. Along with Holmes, the audience sees the memory a length at a time, and we are frustrated along with Holmes by his inability to remember. At first, we are shown very little - a face, a word, or a scene - in short flashes, the way someone might remember an event that occurred many years back; but gradually, the flashbacks lengthen, until the whole memory is revealed, piece by piece. Holmes's inability to remember the story of his final case is echoed in Roger's inability to remember the stories his father used to tell him before his death in WWII. The dilemma of an old man struggling with memory loss at the end of his life finds an echo in the dilemma of a young boy unable to recall early memories of his father. And that brings us to the theme of loss.

Many characters in the film are forced to deal with this theme. Ann deals with the loss of her unborn children; Holmes deals with the loss of his friends, his profession, and his memory; Umezaki and Roger deal with the loss of a father; and Roger fears losing his way of life, while his mother worries about what will happen when Roger loses Holmes. The theme of death and loss finds a gentle metaphor in the bees kept on Holmes's property, which keep dying unaccountably, and reaches a dramatic crescendo when Holmes views the aftermath of the atom bomb in Japan. Each loss seems interconnected, and subtle visuals throughout aid this intricacy.

In a short scene that only afterward takes on importance, Holmes and Umezaki watch a Japanese man perform a ritual to commemorate those he has lost: kneeling on the ground in a circle of stones, the man raises his arms to the heavens. Umezaki tells Holmes that the stones represent the people the man has lost. The man's ritual stands out boldly against the black and barren landscape. Later in the film, Ann erects tombstones for her two children and another for herself. Finally, in the final scene of the film, Holmes reenacts the ritual he witnessed in Japan, forming a circle of stones in the grass to commemorate those he has lost: Ann, Watson, and others. The visual backdrop of Holmes's ritual - a fertile green hillside overlooking the ocean - contrasts sharply with the black, barren backdrop of the Japanese man's ritual; Holmes's act of grieving signifies the beginning of a new life in which he will find long-sought healing, peace, and perhaps even joy. When Holmes and Umezeki find the small prickly ash plant at the site of the atom bomb, Umezeki's comment that the plant's presence shows life reasserting itself seems to foreshadow Holmes's healing at the end of the film, and finds echoes in his friendship with Roger; after devastating loss, life begins anew.

Holmes's ritual at the end of the film comes as no surprise; it occurs as the natural culmination of the process he undergoes throughout the movie, but considering his state of mind at the start of the film, Holmes has changed drastically. Early on in the story Holmes remarks that he doesn't mourn; he uses logic instead, which leaves no room for emotion. The remark is consistent with the character of Sherlock Holmes, coolly making deductions while others succumb to hysteria; but no one is ever done learning, even at age 93, and even Sherlock Holmes still has a few things to learn. Perhaps it is because of Holmes's refusal and - dare I say - inability - to mourn that Ann's death so completely defeats him. After learning of Ann's death, Holmes is defeated, broken, and utterly unable to function. His famous logic has finally failed him and Holmes is crushed in the rescind. His self-imposed rule of never succumbing to emotion has left him unprepared for such a blow. He has developed no coping mechanism for grief, because he has never allowed himself to grieve. It is only Watson's fiction which eventually pieces Holmes back together.

Fiction. This is seriously one of the most epic elements of the film. It'll blow your mind.

Almost at the beginning of the movie, Holmes tells someone that if he ever writes a story, it will be to correct Watson's fictive embellishments. When Umezeki's mother asks Holmes about his deerstalker hat, Holmes replies that he hardly ever wears the deerstalker; that was just one of Watson's embellishments (though he admits later to wishing he'd brought the hat if only to accommodate her). Similarly, at other moments in the story, Holmes shows the high value he places on fact, and the disdain he feels for fictionalizing the truth. When Umezeki tells Holmes about his father, Holmes shows no restraint in giving Umezeki the cold hard facts about the case: Holmes never met Umezeki's father, who clearly lied to his son in order to conceal the fact that he was abandoning his family. Umezeki is visibly upset by Holmes's frank declaration, though he cannot fault Holmes for delivering the truth. His father's lie was a way of softening the reality, as Holmes grasps, though he fails to understand why such softenings are necessary.

When Holmes at last sets out to write his true account, he discovers painfully why fiction is sometimes preferable to fact. The true story of his final case is hard to live with, and embedded within this realization (the movie is like metaphor-inception) is the realization that had Holmes lied to Ann instead of confronting her immediately with reality, her suicide may have been averted. In some cases, fiction succeeds where fact cannot. From this realization comes an unraveling of Holmes's long-held ideas and a reweaving in a different pattern. Holmes writes to Umezeki to tell him that he has suddenly remembered having encountered Umezeki's father and this means that Umezeki's father did, in fact, tell him the truth (work that one out!). For a moment, the viewer is uncertain as to whether Holmes's letter is a true record of an actual event, or a fictive account designed to soothe and heal the recipient. It's a moment of pure genius on the part of the filmmakers. But the viewer soon infers that Holmes's story is anything but true.

Holmes writes the letter to Umezeki at a desk in his room, and the only thing that would make this moment even more genius would be if the desk he sits at is Watson's old desk, which, as the viewer discovers earlier in the movie, has remained with Holmes ever since Watson's marriage and sits in his room throughout the film. I regret to say that I wasn't paying close enough attention at the time to be able to tell you which desk he was sitting at, but next time I watch the movie (and there will be a next time), I'll watch for it. If he is in fact writing the letter from Watson's desk, then the symbolism is complete and the process too: Holmes has converted to Watson's viewpoint concerning fiction and fact, and now sits at Watson's desk, fabricating stories about the great Sherlock Holmes. [After watching the movie a second time, I am pleased to report that Holmes writes the letter to Umezeki while sitting at Watson's desk.]

At the center of Holmes's turn-around is the realization that fiction soothes and heals where fact cannot. When Holmes is devastated after Ann's death, Watson brings Holmes healing by changing the details of the case, writing a fictive account which later serves as the basis for the movie Holmes watches and finds humorous (for all the wrong reasons).

"You shouldn't say everything you think," Mrs. Munro tells her son Roger. And in her simple yet deep motherly wisdom, she understands what the great Sherlock Holmes does not: forbearance is wise, and fiction has its value. And as the audience, we sense that, although Mrs. Munro's observation is couched in a mother's reprimand to her son, she means it in another sense as a check to Sherlock Holmes, who never could resist a plain deduction.

Inherent in Holmes's turn-around regarding fiction and fact is the filmmakers' subtle but effective statement about the value of fiction in society and human life.

Finding that his metaphorical wrestling has renewed his strength, Holmes emerges a changed man. And one of the first ways it shows is in his free expression of grief for a sudden and unexpected tragedy in his life. When Holmes breaks down and sobs in response to Mrs. Munro's accusation that he doesn't care for anyone, Mrs. Munro is visibly shocked - and for good reason. Is this the Sherlock Holmes who, only a short while ago, declared that logic cancels out grief? It is this act of grief that binds the two characters, previously at odds, together. Acting in concord, Holmes and Munro set fire to the wasp nest, destroying once and for all the source of death for the bees; and the act feels cathartic, much like Holmes's sobs. It's as if the two survivors have united to face and destroy once and for all the cause of all their losses and heartache. Maybe the torched wasps' nest, flames rising into a black sky, parallels the act of destruction caused by the atom bomb in Japan. Or maybe it mirrors it, closing the cycle out. Or bringing the circle around again because once more, life begins anew after destruction.

When Roger hands Holmes a stone to use in his mourning ritual, Holmes asks who it's meant to represent:

"Me," Roger replies. "You." Because sooner or later, we lose it all; it's just a part of life.

"Well," says Holmes. "Not yet a while, surely?"

"Did you finish what you had to do?"

"Yes, I did. My first foray into the world of fiction. One shouldn't leave this life without a sense of completion. You can use this in one of your stories. A glass, a bee... and Roger."

Roger will go on telling stories the way his father used to, and Holmes, perhaps, will take up writing stories the way his friend John Watson used to. We tell stories to make sense of the world, to cope with heartache, and to find the will to go on. And if the story we're trying to tell turns out perfect, it might just be Mr. Holmes.


  1. I don't understand why Holmes thought he was responsible for her suicide though?I mean he wasn't obliged to accept her offer.He didn't want to be with her,so he advised her to go home.
    In what possible ways he could've saved that woman's life?Why he went into depression thinking he failed?

    Please explain me what I'm missing.

  2. A very insightful review (thanks for helping with the Japanese connection) of a beautifully shot, written and acted movie. For me, as i suspect for you, this movie is a "classic" to be remembered and appreciated for a very long time.