Mr. Holmes Review: Multiple levels, all of them charming

There have been some great big budget movies this summer. At the same time there have been some supreme turds that got a lot of hype and therefore had lots of reviews written about them.

Buried at the bottom of the box office, however, are some hidden gems. There are some great movies out there that didn’t get a lot of the media attention and didn’t have the wide releases that films like Avengers or Mission: Impossible received. Some of these will disappear and never be heard from again (The Loft) but some have the chance to thrive, and maybe even pick up an award or two. But even if they don’t they are still worthy of your attention.

If you love movies, and you your local cinema is playing Mr. Holmes, do it and yourself a favor and see it.

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Now granted, there’s not an explosion to be heard. There’s not a car crash to be seen. Other than one simple shot of a room disappearing into someone’s memory, there isn’t a hint of computer generated effects (and even that one shot might have been done practically; it’s hard to say). It’s a slow and steady movie; the kind that lets the performances breathe and lets the screenplay take its time setting things up before paying everything off with a quaint, tidy and heartfelt conclusion.

DIFFERENT, YET FAMILIAR

As a fan of the character, I’m happy to see Sherlock Holmes in the middle of a comeback, with multiple iterations of the character appearing in a variety of formats.

On CBS in the US, there is the show “Elementary” which has the seemingly-obligatory “twist” on the format that networks execs feel is needed. In this case we have a female Watson and a New York City setting. It gets fair reviews but I’ve never bothered with it. It belongs to a dying breed of TV shows: Long, 20+ episode seasons, many of which are filler, with stand-alone plots contained within the 40+ minute episode format.

Of course there are the Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock Holmes” movies, done with great style and pizazz by director Guy Ritche. They are great popcorn flicks with a breakneck pace and witty banter between Holmes and Watson, but there is little surface resemblance to the source material.

On the BBC, you have the Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle, “Sherlock” which, while having a modern setting, has managed to retain the spirit of the Doyle writings better than either of the two franchises previously mentioned. Each episode is essentially a short mystery movie, with great cinematography, sharp screenplays, and perfect chemistry between the lead actors. US viewers can keep up with it through Netflix (which is how I discovered it). There are scarce few “episodes” compared to “Elementary” but if its quality over quantity you believe in, the BBC show beats CBS handily.

And then there’s “Mr. Holmes.” Like “Elementary” it takes some liberties with the character (to the chagrin of the Doyle estate) but not at the expense of the character or his history. Like the BBC show it offers just as much introspection for the titular detective as it does the examination of the mystery, but unlike “Sherlock” the character himself is presented with an old school gravitas, and not in Cumberbatch’s “wild and unpredictable” style.

The basic plot concept of the movie, based on the novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin, is that Sherlock Holmes is very old, starting to suffer from dementia and has retired to the country to write a book. All of his prior escapades, written by Dr. Watson, were embellished and exaggerated, and Holmes intends for the last book about his life to be proper and accurate, even if that means “less colorful.” The trouble is, the plot—based on his final case, and the reason he retired—slips in and out from his failing memory.

What we have here is not a “Sherlock Holmes” movie, with all the trappings and tropes we expect from them. Instead we have a movie about Sherlock Holmes the man, that celebrates (and in one sense, repudiates) his tremendous mind stripped away from the bells and whistles and pipes and deerstalker hats.

NOT ONE STORY, BUT MANY
(SPOILERS)

The film is told across multiple time periods. The main setting is late 1940’s London, as the elderly Holmes lives in the country with a live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger. The housekeeper is frustrated by Holmes, who—in his own inimitable style—usually puts her down and criticizes her, without even being aware of his own verbal cruelty. She seeks to move away for better employment, but her son has taken an interest in the retired detective, and Holmes eventually takes a liking to him too.

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Sherlock seeks to write one book, discussing what ended up being his final case. This gives the almost-100 year old detective some purpose in his final years, and Roger gives him an outlet to talk out his thoughts the way he once did with Dr. Watson. The flashback scenes are peppered throughout the movie, while the present day plot shows Holmes playing beekeeper, teaching and recollecting with young Roger and annoying Mrs. Munro.

In talking with Roger, Holmes’ weakened memory starts to flicker back to life. He begins to recall details of the case in question. It was thirty years earlier when a man, Thomas Kelmot, entered his office seeking for Holmes to solve the mystery of his wife, Ann. She wasn’t missing, and she hadn’t taken up another man, but there was something different about her and the husband wants to know what has changed. It turns out that the wife had recently suffered two separate miscarriages and was struggling to cope. Though the “case” seems hardly worthy of the name, Holmes agrees to see after the wife.

Another, separate, series of flashbacks concern a trip Holmes took to Japan. These take place only a short time before the “present” day of the movie, though Holmes health is much stronger compared to how it will soon be. He travels to Japan looking for a particular jelly that is supposed to help with the dementia that is just beginning to take hold of his mind. He talks with a man named Umezaki, who claims to be a long-time admirer of the detective’s.  Before leaving the country, Holmes is asked to sign a copy of one of Umezaki’s favorite “Sherlock Holmes” books.

While being cared for by Roger and his mother, the ailing Mr. Holmes struggles to recollect the details of the thirty year old case. He knows that it was his last, and he knows that the circumstances of its conclusion led to his retirement, but he can’t recall why or what the conclusion was. The audience follows the mystery along with Holmes, working to unravel the clues while at the same time wondering why the movie also includes the Japanese subplot. All three stories will come to a resolution in the third act, but throughout the second we have multiple layers of mystery at work.

As Holmes follows Ann around London, the audience is led to believe that this is an open-and-shut case. She forges checks in her husbands name, purchases poison, and reviews the details of her husband’s Last Will and Testament. Anyone who grew up on mystery movies, or “crime procedural” TV shows could figure out what she was planning. But Holmes saw through the cliches and determined Ann had a different plan than murdering her husband. He confronts her and has his suspicion confirmed: She had been forging checks in order to purchase gravestones. Three in fact: One for each unborn child and one for herself. Once purchased, she intended to kill herself in order to “be with them forever.”

Ann’s great loneliness and depression over her miscarriages was too much for her. Holmes deduced it, logically reasoning out her motive and her plan, but he failed to see the “emotion” involved. When Ann reached out to him, Holmes was oblivious, and simply encouraged her to return to her husband.

Soon after Ann stepped in front of a moving train, killing herself.

Her husband buried her just as she desired, in a grave next to two headstones, one for each child. Holmes was devastated. He thought the case was “solved.” But you can’t just “solve” a depression. He had understood the “facts” of the mystery, but not the “heart” of it.

His profound misunderstanding of the Ann case led him to give up his profession and move away.

The flashback in Japan also comes to its conclusion early in the third act, as Holmes autographs the “cherished” book for Umezaki. As it turs out, the book is anything but cherished. Sherlock signs it “To my friend Umezaki who has never read this book.” The novel in question, Holmes deduces, was purchased only recently, with the glue of the bookstore label only just removed. Umezaki reveals that he harbors a bitterness toward Holmes, because his father abandoned him as a child, apparently on the advice of Sherlock. His father left Japan for England, in what was supposed to be a short trip, but never returned. He wrote one letter, saying that Holmes had encouraged him to leave and never return.

Of course Holmes did no such thing, and the detective is quick to point that out. With his typical matter-of-fact bluntness, Holmes tells Umezaki that his father simple abandoned him and made up a story to justify himself. Once again, Holmes solved the “facts” of the case but failed to consider the “heart.”

With his book detailing the Ann-mystery finished, Holmes has a realization about his “brain without heart” mindset. He writes a letter to Umezaki, stating that he only recently came to recall that he in fact did know his father, and that he had encouraged him to stay away from Japan for ever. The reason was because his father was selected to be a spy and that to return home—even to say goodbye—might put his family at risk.

It was a complete falsehood, but it provided closure to a wounded son, and allowed him to view his abandoning father as a hero and a sacrificer for his family. Holmes sent the letter, finally able to see the value in considering the “heart” of the matter, beyond the mere “facts” of the case.

FINAL THOUGHTS

First of all, the movie is beautiful to look at.

McKellen played the role perfectly, displaying the right amount of arrogance and terseness that comes with the role, without going too far into crassness. Though the movie has three time-settings, there are two version of Holmes. One shows the detective still at the top of his game, and the other shows the much older and slightly more feeble (physically and mentally) Holmes struggling to get around. McKellen did a wonderful job with both performances. And his work as the slightly-younger Holmes makes me wish he could have played the role in a series of movies decades earlier.

There’s a great moment midway through, where Holmes slips away to a movie theater to watch an adaptation of one of Watson’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Holmes balks and scoffs at the dramatic dialogue and overly-simplified puzzle solving. It makes me wonder what it must be like for Stan Lee to sit through all these Marvel movies. Or for Steve Jobs to sit through all these “Steve Jobs” movies.

Oh wait.

This movie isn’t for everyone. There’s a reason it didn’t get a wide release in theaters. But it is a great and pleasant film that, despite its many differences from the many books, really nailed the essence of the character in a way that few other iterations of the character do. In the BBC show, poor Watson often gets exasperated with Holmes’ arrogance and detachment from emotion. It is played for laughs in that show. Here we are given a true examination of just such a mindset, why it is flawed and what consequences it can wrought. The film does a great job deconstructing Sherlock Holmes, and the lead actor does a brilliant job bringing the nuance of the character to life.

SCORE:

9/10

See it; in theaters if you can.

If you like these kinds of movies, support these kinds of movies!

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  • Ann Moore

    The present tense is “wreak” and the past participle is “wrought.” So, “…what consequences it can wreak.” Or, “…what consequences it has wrought.” That said, I agree completely with the analysis of this delightful film.

    • Matthew Martin

      You are absolutely right! I’m going to chalk that error up to “I wrote it at 2am.”

      Thanks!

      • Ann Moore

        Graciously put! It happens to all of us. Thanks for the astute review.

  • Brian Pawley

    An excellent review. I cannot fault Mr Martin’s observations and concur with his enthusiasm for a great piece of cinematic art all round. Thanks, too, to Ann Moore for her efforts to keep the English language correctly expressed. Mr. Conan Doyle would most certainly have approved.

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