No Shit, Sherlock

Mr. Holmes (2015) A film by Bill Condon

It is the dream of every author to create a great iconic character, someone that people recognize just by the name. Cervantes, our first novelist, created two. In a way he was just writing about two aspects of the human mind, or the human personality. He could as easily have called them Yin and Yang. Arthur Conan Doyle did a similar thing a few centuries later when he created Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Cervantes’ creation was much more profound; his novel, in the two parts that he wrote some years apart, is about all of life, and is a different book every time one reads it. I’ve read it three times, in three different translations, and would happily start it again tomorrow (in another translation). He was the first novelist and in many ways the greatest. The rest of us should have given up right there.

But just because Holmes isn’t as profound a character as Quixote, he is almost more iconic. You’d be cowed to write a sequel to Don Quixote, though I believe people wrote their own versions in Cervantes’ day. But people write new versions of Sherlock Holmes all the time, thinking they’ve captured the true man, and the number of movies and television adaptions is staggering. I thought Jeremy Brett’s interpretation from some years ago was brilliant, and have had no particular wish to see any others. He played Holmes as an extreme neurotic, a real nut case, and I thought there was more than a suggestion that the man was gay, perhaps even that he and Watson were getting it on (that’s not a suggestion for future screenwriters).

I haven’t read any of the stories or novels based on Holmes except those of Conan Doyle, so I haven’t read Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, on which the new Bill Condon movie Mr. Holmes is based. I loved Conan Doyle’s meat and potatoes style and the way he got on with the narrative, read many of his stories multiple times. But if I were going to read one of the more recent novels I’d be tempted by Cullin’s, because Mr. Holmes takes Sherlock—as they say in the world of basketball—to the next level. It’s not really a Sherlock Holmes mystery. It’s a whole new kind of work.

The conceit in the movie is that Holmes, though a real person, was also a literary character created by Dr. Watson, who narrated the stories (poor Conan Doyle is left out altogether). Watson added embellishments to make the character more memorable; the deerstalker cap was a fiction, for instance, and the real man preferred cigars to a pipe. Watson also changed some details so that the real man wouldn’t be hounded too much; the real address was not 221B Baker Street, but another place across the way (Sherlock Holmes aficionados will go bonkers at this suggestion). There is an implication that Watson embellished the stories as well, as is a fiction writer’s prerogative, and changed what actually happened. Now 93 years old and suffering from memory loss, Holmes is trying to remember and write down what actually happened in his final case some 30 years before, the one that made him give up detective work forever.

So there’s no necessity for Ian McKellen to actually “be” Sherlock Holmes. All those famous mannerisms were just embellishments of the fictional character. He doesn’t have to take on Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, or any of the other famous Holmes. He’s just a kindly old man who, in his retirement, has decided to keep bees. And he’s cared for by a housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes as the movie opens has just gotten back from Japan, where he was seeking out a substance—prickly ash—that may improve his memory. It grows most plentifully, weirdly enough, in the ruins of Hiroshima, which Holmes visits with his Japanese host, Tamaki Umezaki (Hiroyoki Samada). We learn later that Umezaki believe he has some past with Holmes as well; his father traveled to Great Britain some years before, and the younger man believes that Holmes encouraged his father to stay in that country and make a career there, thereby abandoning his family. Holmes doesn’t remember such a man or such an incident, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The story he’s wracking his brains about happened 30 years before, and concerned a woman who was behaving oddly, perhaps because of the deaths of her two children. Her husband sought Holmes out because he didn’t know who else to talk to.

Holmes was presented to the world as a man with almost supernatural powers of observation and ratiocination; he could look at a set of minor details and put together a logical explanation that solved the whole case. How does he do that? we all wondered when we were kids, as if he were a magician performing some supernatural feat. But of course it’s easy if you’re the author and you know the result, as Edgar Allen Poe had noted some years before. He was the man who created the prototype of Holmes, and a whole theory of how to write such a story, beginning at the end. Many a writer has made a handsome living doing just that (Agatha Christie, to name one who made a hell of a handsome living) because human beings love a puzzle that has a solution. They love to finally find out the answer. They can’t do it in life, but have an endless desire to do it in fiction.

Mr. Holmes moves beyond that. Sherlock Holmes in fiction is a monster of logic, a prototype for Mr. Spock, another character that all the geeks want to be like. Everyone wants to have the mind that can conquer every obstacle. But what this real Holmes sees as he pieces together the details of that earlier case, also as he thinks over his encounter with Tamaki Umezaki, is that logic doesn’t solve every human problem; there are some instances where thinking says to do one thing, but human feeling, fellow feeling, would have us do another. Holmes actually learns that from the people he’s dealing with on a day by day basis, Mrs. Munro and Roger, particularly one highly-charged occasion when she screams at him, “He’s my son!” Logic told him to do one thing in that moment, but human feeling dictated quite another. It’s weird to think that a man would have to live to be 93 to learn such a thing.

We never hear exactly why Holmes has waited until such an advanced age to ponder these matters; that seems a flaw in the work, though I didn’t notice as I was watching. Everything about the movie is beautifully done, and Ian McKellen is his usual marvelous self, but I would have to say that Milo Parker as Roger steals the show. This isn’t just one more movie about an old man’s friendship with a young boy, though that is certainly part of the story. But it’s through his relationship with the boy that Sherlock Holmes finally, at the age of 93, realizes what love is.

Extraordinary, he might have said, to finally come upon such a thing. And we would have replied, Elementary.