Creative reimagining of the canon is an art unto itself.
Such is the case with the movie, “Mr. Holmes: The Man Beyond the Myth.” Based on the book, “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin (1985), it explores the life of Sherlock Holmes in retirement as he raises bees in a farm upon the South Downs in Sussex in the south coast of England.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), creator of the wildly popular detective, wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear) centered on his super sleuth.
But when Doyle ‘exiled’ Holmes to his apiary (The Blanched Soldier, The Lion's Mane and His Last Bow), it only kindled the imagination of writers convinced that age could not possibly dim this prodigious mind.
The stories in the canon suggest that Holmes would have been about 50 years old when he retired in late 1903. The movie opens with Holmes (played by Ian McKellen in an Oscar-worthy performance) pushing 93 in 1947 in post-WWII England. His mind is as agile as ever but his memory is failing him. That explains his recent visit to Japan where he went in search of the elusive “prickly ash,” a plant with alleged ingredients to spruce up the memory, the ginkgo biloba of its time. He and his Japanese guide (Hiroyuki Sanada, who has a mystery of his own that he wants Holmes to solve) discover the plant in the bomb-blasted ruins of Hiroshima. Holmes’s physician derisively calls the plant “Ashly prick” but is unable to convince Holmes of its uselessness.
Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney, also brilliant) is Holmes’s long-suffering housekeeper, burdened by her gifted son Roger (Milo Parker, gifted actor indeed!) who helps Holmes with the upkeep of the bees and shows all the signs of a budding Sherlock Holmes in his own right. The pair’s verbal back-and-forth can carry the movie for those for whom a riposte goes farther than an edge-of-the–seat car chase.
Roger and Holmes run circles around Mrs. Munro with their observations, their air-tight logical inferences. “She doesn’t even know how to read,” says Roger in an outburst of cruelty that earns him a rebuke from Holmes. The practical Mrs. Munro wants to move out for the sake of her son’s future, a possibility that distresses both Holmes and Roger. “Exceptional children are the product of unremarkable parents,” Holmes arrogantly tells his housekeeper, indifferent to the cruelty of the remark. But he redeems himself by also telling Roger that “a good son always does what a mother asks him to.” Holmes also makes clear his distaste for people who “cloak cowardice in flags of sacrifice” and who does not wish, particularly at this stage in his life, to be a “last resort for lunatics out there.”
The story revolves around an unfinished case that Holmes investigated thirty years ago, of a devoted wife (Ann Kelmot, played by Hattie Morahan) whose miscarriages left her, and her husband Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), in misery and suspicion. When finally Holmes takes the mystery to its logical conclusion, it leads not to a sense of satisfaction but to a despair unknown to the First Detective who commanded mass adulation in his prime. “Human nature is a mystery,” says a rueful and chastened Holmes, “that logic alone cannot illuminate.”
What of the man beyond the myth? Earlier in the movie, Holmes informs an incredulous Roger that Dr. Watson, his quintessential sidekick (who had “at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association” as Holmes recalls in The Blanched Soldier), was not beyond taking poetic license in transcribing his adventures, including associating the iconic detective with the hat, the pipe and the cigar. He wishes to correct the embellishments of Watson who “turned me into fiction.” When Holmes struggles to recall the case of Ann Kelmot, it is Roger who supplies the crucial link that allows him to reconstruct the tragedy that unfolded so many years ago. As to why the case haunts him, Holmes tells his young protégé that “one shouldn’t leave this world without a sense of completion.”
Holmes’s enigmatic brother, Mycroft Holmes (The Greek Interpreter, in which Holmes confided to Watson that “If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an arm-chair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived”) makes an appearance to help viewers tidy up the case of Holmes’s Japanese guide. There are also allusions to Jack the Ripper and, of course, to the fearsome and ferocious Hounds of the Baskervilles.
There is a subtle, and it turns out, telling difference between the sting of a bee and that of a wasp. When Holmes comes upon the seemingly lifeless body of Roger on his estate with angry stings all over his body, his first instinct is to summon an ambulance before informing the boy’s mother. In anguish, the mother accuses Holmes of exploiting the boy and not really caring for him. “But I do,” laments Holmes as he breaks down before the mother in a heart-breaking scene of pain and guilt, remorse and repentance.
At the confluence of art and science lies the power of observation. This is what saves a distraught Holmes, already reeling from an “outbreak of mortality,” as he suddenly realizes what really happened to Roger now fighting for his life in the hospital.
“What will happen to the bees when you are gone,” Roger had asked Holmes earlier. That question helps Holmes figure out the chain of events that ensued when Roger went to check in on the bees dying mysteriously in their hives.
Curious? Then consider seeing this poignant, cerebral movie.