Saturday, July 18, 2015

Mr. Holmes: Film Review

Released 17 July 2015.
Ian McKellen gives an outstanding performance in Mr. Holmes (2015).   Nevertheless, it's not just a master's class in acting. The film provides a great meditation on late-life issues that offers insights to viewers of all ages.

DVD Release Date: November 10, 2015.

As a born-and-bred Anglophile, a recent Sherlock Holmes' fan, a long-time McKellen fan, and a recently minted gerontologist, I was exhilarated by Bill Condon's film (based on Mitch Cullin's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind). 

The film depicts the famous detective wrestling with mysteries in three settings:

[I will keep this review vague enough to prevent spoilers until towards the end; then I will clearly indicate where to stop reading if you have not yet seen this film.]

Setting #1. The film's present year is 1947; Holmes has been retired for 30 years.  He occupies his time by solving problems with his bees and his failing memory.

With his partnership with Watson dissolved decades prior, Holmes finds an assistant in Roger, a boy about 10 years old. Roger (played by Milo Parker) is the only child of the recently widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (played by Laura Linney).  

Setting #2. The film's most recent past depicts Holmes traveling in post-war Japan with his host, Mr. Umezaki (played by Hiroyuki Sanada). During their time together, each man seeks to extract a secret from the other. 

Setting #3. The film's most stereotypical sleuthing takes place in London circa 1917.  The mystery involves Holmes' last case wherein the detective follows Ann Kelmot, a married woman, at the request of her concerned husband, Thomas.

In his advanced age, Holmes is occupied to some degree with managing his health. His chief medical complaints are stiffness in his joints and memory problems (called "senility" at the time). However, Holmes also attends to other common late-life concerns:  He is troubled with regrets and loneliness.

As with many people facing death, Holmes is occupied with evaluating his legacy; I identify this occupation with his legacy as the film's major theme.   

Despite his age-related limitations, Holmes quite actively puts all his resources to good use in reviewing his life and revising his legacy. 

The great detective's life review is marred by his failing memory, which adds drama to what would otherwise be a tedious march through one person's past and into the present.  Instead, viewers sit side-by-side with Holmes in having to ask: What transpired when Thomas Kelmot hired Holmes to follow Ann?    

By the end of the film, Holmes and the viewers learn a great deal about the Kelmots and about the mysteries in the other two settings as well.  In the process, we learn more about the mysteries of the human mind and the human heart.   

I am absolutely seeing it in the theater again soon. I want to examine how the visuals and dialogue helped support the theme of conducting a life review and revising one's legacy. 

Spoilers ahead in the form of major hints (not blatant explanation, but strong hints).  Do not read any more if you want to discover for yourself what elements are clues to the film's mysteries. 

The film's editing weaves together wonderful clues from all three settings to create a pastiche of images.

In one scene about 2/3 of the way through, Holmes falls into a delirium and major images form the film flicker in his mind. I had a parallel experience as I tried to go to sleep and failed to do so because of the power of the images, dialogue, characters, settings, props, and plot from Mr. Holmes.

The theme of intellect vs affection escalates throughout the film, starting from the opening scene. This theme is quite pervasive in films depicting dementia. For example, Still Alice (2014) compares and contrasts achievement by intellectual acumen with living and loving in the moment.

Primarily, I kept reviewing in my mind's eye key scenes take place where Holmes is sitting on a bench besides a woman or across from her.  Even the film within the film contains such a scene.

Viewers will also notice several sets of parents and children throughout the film, which is interesting, considering the main character is childless.  However, if one wants to leave a legacy, he or she must leave this legacy to the rising generation.  But also the theme of logic vs love pervades in the tensions between parent and child or in how one parent differs in his or her approach to relating to children. 

Another strong theme is fact vs. fiction.  Most laughably, this theme is introduced by operating on the assumption that Holmes actually existed beyond the pages of the world-famous detective stories. But that little conceit aside, the characters take various approaches to how they embrace or shun fictional narratives presented in the film. 

Viewers can also judge the motives characters have for constructing true narratives or fictional ones. The absence of information affects the characters' abilities to construct narratives for each person's purposes. 

Insects and plants are also important to the film.   After watching the film, I found out that the cover of Cullin's novel (upon which the screenplay is based) features a bee.  Also, bees are symbols of industry and for preserving the memory of the withering flower for future use.  Questions of industry and memory occupy the retired detective.  (Honey has a much longer shelf life than a rose in full bloom or even perfume extracted from the rose.)  Look for any discussion of insects and plants, including their byproducts, their habitats, and their properties. 

More briefly employed are images of smoke, fire, stones, decay, oceans, and trains. Keep an eye open for these as well.  Or review their use and importance if you've already seen the film. 

Truth be told, the opening scene on the train with Holmes sharing a compartment with a woman, her son, a wasp, a box from Japan, and a scowl contains strong foreshadowing for very important elements of the whole film. 

Enjoy this film the first time -- or the second. Hmmm. What are the showtimes today? 



  1. Hi Rena! I have been looking forward to seeing this movie ever since I saw the first trailer. Both my husband and I are Sherlock Holmes fans so of course it is a must-see. And it's good to know that it's a good movie too. If you are a friend I strongly recommend the PBS series on Sherlock Holmes. It's on Netflix and VERY good as well. ~Kathy

    1. Thanks for mentioning the PBS series on Sherlock Holmes. It's interesting to see the different interpretations of the characters. Have a good day.

  2. I definitely want to see this movie! I'm a huge fan of Ian McKellen.

    1. His acting was so good, that during the opening scenes, I kept wondering, "When did McKellen become so frail?" .