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Mr. Holmes (spoilers)

My family and I went to see Mr. Holmes in theaters tonight. It’s probably the first time the whole family has been to see something since...? I’m going to guess Toy Story 3.

We all love the old mystery series, from listening to Nero Wolfe audiobooks on long trips to watching Masterpiece Mystery (Poirot, especially) whenever it’s on. So of course Sherlock Holmes is part of that. We had the short story collections, the novels, the audiobooks. We’ve seen various actors play the part, love BBC’s version. So Ian McKellen playing Sherlock? No brainer.


And he was great for the role. An older, quieter Holmes. He’s no action hero here and you can tell he never was, not like the newer incarnations. He waffles between 93 and 60-something years old throughout the movie, as he tries to remember his last case before retirement. It’s Sir Ian the whole time, but one version is more spry, still dressing dapper, while the other mostly wears pyjamas and sweaters as he slowly hobbles around on the walking stick that had simply been a prop before. One’s face is a little more lined.

The premise is that Sherlock Holmes, a myth in his own life, retired to keep bees after one case went wrong. A husband thought his wife was behaving peculiarly, thought she could be under a spell (?), and Sherlock takes the case. We don’t know how, or even if, it went wrong because Watson wrote it as a success and Holmes is losing his memory. He just knows that he wouldn’t have retired unless something went wrong. So he starts writing the case to try to jog his memory. It works somewhat, with his housekeeper’s curious son egging him on.

The son, Roger, is a big part of the movie. I was a little worried he’d be the typical cute kid in a movie (not that I don’t love them, but they’re a trope), but I liked that he gave Sherlock someone to not be lonely with and to reach out to. I only wish we had been given more of a reason for Sherlock to bond with this particular boy. But Roger is curious about his cases and is willing to learn beekeeping to help in the apiary. His mom (Laura Linney) is the stereotypical mistrustful, downtrodden housekeeper. She didn’t really give much to the story, I felt, other than wartime feels about losing her husband in the war.

(We’re getting into spoilery territory here, so skip this section or hit the back button)


Sherlock is getting more feeble and his memories are slipping further away, until in a flash of a dream, he remembers. He met the wife he was following, Ann, and spoke with her. Said he understood her grief for her miscarried children, her hopelessness with a husband who didn’t understand, her loneliness. That’s why she wanted to kill herself. He said, I understand because I’m lonely too. And she says, Let’s go be lonely somewhere together in understanding. But Sherlock solved his mystery, gave the typical expository speech on the facts and motivations, and thought himself done. So he said, go home to your husband. That’s what happens when the case is solved, right? Everything goes back to normal? Instead, she kills herself. The grief and the guilt caused Sherlock to move away to where his logic couldn’t hurt anyone else.

It’s an interesting commentary on the detective story. We follow the detective, so the story ends once they’ve solved the case. We often miss the effect the solution has on those involved. And when it’s a victimless mystery, is the detective obligated to tell the truth, no matter how painful? Or should they lie, bend the truth, leave truths unsaid to protect the innocent? BBC’s Sherlock, along with some others, appear cruel in their dedication to telling the truth, no matter others’ feelings or the cost. Not McKellen’s Sherlock. He saw the cost and decided it was too high. So he got out of the business.


Sherlock also had some interesting points about fiction versus reality. In this universe, Sherlock Holmes is famous. Watson’s books are already being made into hit films and everyone recognizes Holmes with his pipe and deerstalker. But, as he explains to a fan, he has never worn a deerstalker. And he used to enjoy a pipe, but now mostly smokes cigars. Because the Sherlock Holmes that Watson wrote about was fiction and so the real Sherlock had to distinguish himself from the myths somehow. In essence, he had to distance himself from the version everyone thought they knew.

All in all, we enjoyed the movie. Ian McKellen was great. I loved the British-ness of the movie, from the post-war atmosphere to the landscapes (to the jam in tea WHO DOES THAT). I thought the story with the Roger and his mother could have been stronger, although I liked that the bees dying and Roger’s accident gave a little side mystery to be solved. The memory loss was difficult to watch, especially in such a brilliant mind and knowing what comes after the initial losses. But it was at heart a detective story about the detective, not the case, and was exactly what I wanted from it.


Has anyone else seen it? Any other thoughts? Perhaps about the mystery genre in general?

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