Genre films find most of their value and merit in transcending their respective genre, using it as a launching point, a familiar and comfortable language with which to convey far greater meaning. Interstellar succeeds because it is just as much a family drama, a tale of one man’s love for his daughter, as it is a deep-space adventure. The Thin Red Line haunts viewers because though it follows war film conventions it places primary emphasis on the metaphysical and spiritual longings of the men fighting the battle of Guadalcanal. In the same vein, Mr. Holmes, while technically a mystery, finds its true power as a sobering and touching reflection on a great man’s inexorable march towards death. As one critic astutely observed, in the midst of a summer season typically committed to making superheroes into immortal figures, Bill Condon’s powerful little film is too busy reminding us of one iconic figure’s mortality.
The narrative structure of Mr. Holmes is delightfully non-linear, juggling three mysterious plots simultaneously. In the present day of the story, 1947, a rapidly aging and retired Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) struggles to cope with both his failing memory and his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), along with her young and inquisitive son Roger (Milo Parker). Tension boils underneath the surface between Holmes and the feisty Munro. Munro desires to move herself and her son to better work, but as Holmes develops a budding relationship with Roger, helping him to develop the hobby of bee-keeping, Munro begins to see Holmes as a rival. Holmes, on the other hand, has been struggling both with his age and reflecting on the last mystery he solved thirty-five years earlier, which prompted him to quit detective work. A second plot recalls Holmes’ recent trip to Japan to find “prickly ash” in hopes of restoring his fading memory, a memory that prevents him from remembering the details of this last mystery (the third plot-line). Holmes has been attempting to write his own factual novel of this mystery to (purportedly) combat the falsehoods of Mr. Watson’s novels about himself, but soon he finds Roger to have a profound influence upon him, and in directing his novel towards the young boy he begins to piece together and reconcile himself with the events that drove him to abandon his investigative duties.
Mr. Holmes is a slow burner, but it rewards the patient and attentive viewer. Condon wisely allows the multiple mystery plots to play second-fiddle to the realistically physical struggles of Holmes, who is played with grace and honesty by McKellen. This is a flawed Holmes, a mortal Holmes, but a human Holmes. McKellen plays Holmes as a man of pure logic who is finding his logical capabilities deteriorating as the ultimate illogicality, death, approaches. Holmes must learn how to face death, and in doing so must return to reconciling and making sense of the life he lived. I will refrain from exploring the details the film explores, but Holmes wrestles with the consequences of his highly analytical and detached genius. At the end of his life, Holmes is forced to reckon with what it is to be truly human, and through Roger and Mrs. Munro, Holmes is given the chance to pour the wisdom of his old age into coming generations. Questions of the relationship between factual truth, fictional narrative and morality are also posed using the legendary stature of Sherlock Holmes the detective. These narrative threads prompt the provocative question as to whether right and noble fictions are preferable to bleak and hopeless facts (essentially, Truth vs. truth) and thus, in a fascinating way, the film wrestles with justifying its own existence.
Aided with stately cinematography from Tobias Schliessler and gripping performances from the entire cast, Mr. Holmes is a delicate reflection upon life, death, truth and reconciliation. There are moments of laughter, moments of intrigue, and moments of sadness. This is the story of an aging man who is confronted with the reality that there is more to this life than fact and reason, that there is an element of human existence inaccessible to the rationale, and that there is meaning beyond the drawing of our own breath. Because of this, Mr. Holmes is a profoundly human film and no mere mystery tale. Indeed, it is something far, far more valuable.