Mr. Holmes

The aging Sherlock questions the value of logic and chemistry

Rather than encouraging people not to waste their time watching this month’s big blockbuster (Rogue Nation, which is entertaining and well-made but also shallow and ultimately supportive of our insane and evil “intelligence” communities), I have decided to encourage people to watch a relatively obscure and underrated gem called Mr. Holmes.

At its heart, Mr. Holmes is about an aging Sherlock beginning to question the value of the logic and chemistry that have ruled his mind and his life.

Mr. Holmes opens with a scene in a train compartment where a young boy sitting opposite Holmes is observing what he calls a bee on the window. “That is not a bee,” corrects Holmes. “That is a wasp, which is an entirely different thing.” This scene brilliantly foreshadows a number of elements in the film that follows (in which bees play a central role), signaling that this quiet, slow-moving drama is one that will reward patience and careful observation.

Mr. Holmes stars Ian McKellen as a 90-year-old Sherlock Holmes who has been living in retirement for more than 30 years in a remote seaside farmhouse, tending bees. The year is now 1947 and Holmes has just returned from a trip to Japan, where he acquired a rare plant called Prickly Ash that he believes may be able to reverse his increasing loss of memory (which he refers to as senility). The plant could only be found in the ruins of Hiroshima, where Holmes has observed the devastation as people mourn their lost loved ones.

Holmes has not had loved ones in his life for a long time. Now he lives with a housekeeper (played by Laura Linney) and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker). While his mother looks on suspiciously (and fearfully), Roger takes a keen interest in Holmes and in Holmes’ attempt to write down what really happened in his final case, the case that resulted in his retirement. The problem is that Holmes can’t remember what happened and, to his chagrin, the prickly ash isn’t helping the way he thought it would.

Instead, it is Holmes’ growing friendship with Roger that begins to bring back his memories, piece by piece, tantalizing us with a backstory we see for only a few minutes at a time throughout Mr. Holmes. While that backstory is critical to understanding Holmes’ headspace as a 90-year-old, the story of Holmes and his relationship with his household companions is the more important (and ultimately more rewarding) one.

At its heart, Mr. Holmes is about an aging Sherlock beginning to question the value of the logic and chemistry that have ruled his mind and his life: could it be that feelings are more important than logic; that relationships are more important than chemistry? The film is also about loneliness and death and how to find life and inspiration in the midst of them. It’s also about the importance of stories, real or imaginary, and how objects both tell stories and link stories together.

The 76-year-old McKellen is perfect as Holmes, delivering one of the finest performances of his amazing career. Mr. Holmes is worth watching just for that performance, but it offers much more. The rest of the acting is also splendid. The cinematography is gorgeous in every frame. The score is subtle and well-suited to the story. There were times when I thought the pacing of the film could have been a little faster, but in general I found Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay (based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin) and the directing of Bill Condon to be first-rate.

So I was surprised by the many critical reviews that, while generally positive, were not very enthusiastic. Those reviews focused on the slow “plodding” pace of Mr. Holmes, as if that’s a crime in and of itself. I wonder whether the increasingly fast pace and short scenes of today’s blockbusters have created expectations that are eroding our patience for beautiful, quiet films with a lot to offer those willing to think about and discuss what they have watched. Indeed, Mr. Holmes is so full that we discussed it for well over an hour afterwards, deciding in the end that, unlike the critically-acclaimed Rogue Nation, this is a film that can actually help people live better.


Mr. Holmes is rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images, and incidental smoking.