From the beginning, Sherlock Holmes stories were as much about the interplay between logic and emotion as about ash-dust and ciphers. Holmes symbolizes the pinnacle of reason and remove, yet he comes to need the compassion and friendship of Watson.
Mr. Holmes playfully snubs the Watson accounts as exaggerations, but the titular detective needs friendship just as desperately. Watson and his stories have ended long ago. The retired Holmes has foresworn sleuthing and tends bees in the English countryside with the help of the widowed live-in maid, Mrs. Munro. Holmes, however, has a last great mystery plaguing him: He cannot remember the final case that led him to retire. With the help of Munro’s son Roger, a devoted fan of the stories, Holmes tries to reconstruct his past.
This grappling with dementia—a symbol for human frailty, but more on that later—sets Mr. Holmes above the average costume drama. If Sherlock Holmes is known for his excellent mental abilities, what happens when he loses that ability? Sir Ian McKellan’s impressive portrayal, if not as inhuman as other incarnations of the sleuth, thrives on a touching feebleness. Holmes writes names on the cuffs of his shirt. He needs the physical care of Munro more than he ever needed Baker Street’s Mrs. Hudson. Even his costuming reflects his receding strength: The Holmes of flashbacks wears full suits, while the contemporary Holmes dons billowing shirts, age spots, and unkempt hair.
Fittingly, McKellan’s Holmes fights memory loss with reason and science. He has traveled the world to find unpalatable cures for his disease. He strives to recall his past by sheer willpower. The only cure that seems to work, however, is spending time with Roger. “You help me remember,” Holmes tells the boy as they tend a beehive together. The one cure which according to reason should not work—that of a child’s friendship—is what brings meaning and memory back into Holmes’s life.
If he subscribed to any philosopher, the younger Holmes probably would have been a supporter of Kant. Each person’s views are shaped by personal experience, Kant says. While people cannot have knowledge of the transcendent or even a firm knowledge of reality, they can and should act on reason. Both literally and figuratively, however, Holmes’s logic disintegrates. The old Holmes discovers that he has exiled himself from his field as “a punishment” for realizing how little he understands human nature.
Holmes stands for the rational empiricist who quakes at the irrationality of the mind, at the way human emotions twist logic to follow their own passions. One perfect example of this comes when a younger Holmes visits a Japanese friend. “I’ve never had much use for imagination,” Holmes says, but he looks alarmed when he sees a young woman burned by an atomic bomb. He imagines the evil of the human heart, and is disturbed.
Holmes’s dementia, then, stands for the acknowledgment of human frailty. People are not all logical automata. Evil, and not a failing of reason, leads to sin. The more Holmes accepts his own mortality and uncertainty, the more he clings to friendship and Roger’s childlike devotion. In the end, he even seems to acknowledge a sort of higher spiritual power: He lays memorial stones to lost friends and raises his hands to heaven.
The pace of Bill Condon’s direction—slow and natural—seems to uphold this element of the story. While the mystery, which plays in flashbacks, is entertaining, it seems to take second place to lingering shots of bees and the English countryside. Like the novel (A Slight of Mind) on which this film is based, the countryside gives the story an introspective feel. It’s quite a different perspective on Holmes than any other iteration of the classic sleuth, though fans of BBC’s Sherlock will notice a cameo of the pilot episode’s serial killer.
Besides Holmes, other characters’ motivations seem unclear. Munro wants to leave Holmes’s service for no apparent reason—while reserved, the retired detective is certainly never ornery or rude. Roger’s appreciation for Holmes goes unexplained, and I was never sure why Holmes himself warmed up to the boy. The film is not big on character development.
It is, however, big on ethos. Using a fictional character from a long-passed world, Mr. Holmes explores the uncertainty of reason and the importance of healthy relationships. Perhaps it is not a typical Sherlock Holmes mystery. Instead, the film helps us realize the mysteries of human existence and knowledge.