Big Screen Streaming: Mr. Holmes

Big Screen Streaming: Mr. Holmes

-by Roger Market-

The Sherlock Holmes we know and love often appears in movies and TV shows as a young detective at the top of his game. This trend isn’t just another manifestation of Hollywood’s obsession with youth and beauty; it actually makes sense, as the original books and stories have Holmes solving the bulk of his cases relatively early in life. How can the entertainment industry once again rejuvenate the indelible detective? There’s no point trying to make him any younger; it’s already been done. So in director Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, the character gets the opposite of a facelift, and the effect is refreshing.

At ninety-three years old, Holmes is feeble, irascible, withdrawn. He’s preoccupied with the unsolvable case that sent him into retirement some thirty years prior, the already incomplete details of which are escaping him in his old age. Sir Ian McKellen brings the appropriate brooding quality to the role. His Holmes is emotionally distant from everyone, including, notably, his live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her son, Roger (Milo Parker). Indeed, the only living creatures he really seems to care about are his bees.

Young Roger nonetheless idolizes Holmes, and the movie’s emotional core revolves around their relationship. Holmes is fond of the boy but is cold toward him. For example, when Holmes discovers that Roger has been in his study reading the story he’s been writing to try to make sense of his unsolvable case, the aged detective is upset that his privacy has been invaded. He reacts with hostility tempered by unexpected gentleness. His opposition thaws as he and Roger bond over a shared interest in solving the case. He even shares one of his tricks, telling Roger that when a man comes to see a detective, “it’s usually about his wife.”

Although Mr. Holmes isn’t a mystery film per se, viewers can certainly expect throwbacks and jokes about the original source material. Early in the film, for instance, the detective insists that fiction is worthless, and when asked about imagination, his response is classic Sherlock Holmes: “I’ve never had much use for imagination. I prefer facts.” He also reiterates, many times, the fictional nature of the stories written by his former partner, Watson. These statements collectively speak to the iconic character’s predilection for solving mysteries with facts, while at the same time, in the context of this particular adaptation, hinting at the cynicism he’s acquired in his twilight years. In fact, it’s exactly because of his advanced age, both mentally and physically, that the typical combination of mystery and action (à la 2009’s Sherlock Holmes) won’t work here. Instead, we watch as an elderly man wrestles with mistakes made in the pursuit of his passion: solving the mysteries of human nature. How far will he go to bring his uncrackable case to its proper end?

The movie’s resolution may surprise some viewers, and its depth may both sadden and delight. In his quest to solve the mystery, Holmes has to face the consequences of his own obsessive nature and to accept companionship before it’s too late. The final scenes offer heart-pounding tragedy and much-needed solace, and McKellen, Linney, and Parker are a phenomenal trio to the end. Viewers who enjoy Sherlock Holmes and are curious about what his twilight years might look like should definitely check out Mr. Holmes. It’s currently showing in a somewhat limited capacity, but each week brings new theaters into the fold. Check your local listings for details.


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