Sherlock Holmes is a singular character in more ways than one. It is hard to think of another imaginary figure who has so blurred the distinction between fiction and reality that he has attracted an international mock-scholarly tide of followers who pretend the stories are true, that Watson—not Conan Doyle—wrote the tales, and that Holmes actually lived in an address, 221B Baker Street, that with the proper tools can actually be found. In 2005 the author Mitch Cullin entered this Great Game with a beautiful novel called A Slight Trick of the Mind which played off that obfuscation in a remarkably sophisticated and original way. While other parodists were turning Holmes into a superhero who confronts Jack the Ripper, Dracula, Freud, Marx, and Teddy Roosevelt, Cullin imagined him as an old man haunted by a failing memory, perceiving that he has become little more than a fiction made up by his well-meaning, incurably romantic friend Dr. Watson.
Now Cullin’s novel has been filmed as Mr. Holmes, a smart, wonderfully nuanced adaptation directed by Bill Condon that stars Sir Ian McKellen and Laura Linney. It is hard to imagine another film digging deeper into the implications of Holmes as a reasoning machine or turning him so effectively into a hall of mirrors. When we meet him, he is a 93-year-old loner in post-war England who keeps bees in Sussex and befriends the 14-year-old son of his housekeeper. Holmes likes the boy’s intelligence and his ways with bees; and, in his stoic way, he cultivates him as an admiring disciple (could this be a Watson in the making?). Meanwhile, Holmes has just returned from occupied Japan, where he has been searching for a plant that will help restore his memory. Guided by his Japanese host, he finds the specimen he needs in the rubble of Hiroshima. His host, however, has his own hidden demons that apparently derive from something Holmes did, long in the past. Intertwined with these overlapping stories is a third, this one in the form of a story written by Holmes himself as a form of therapy, about a case so traumatic that it prompted him to leave crime detection for beekeeping. We watch the story unfold before our eyes as Roger reads the story and hounds Holmes to finish it, prompting Holmes to confront the traumatic case of the repressed Mrs. Ann Kelmot and the Glass Armonica.
This is not the Sherlock Holmes adventure story we have been trained for. The cases themselves are not complex, there are no master criminals, no deerstalker, no clay pipe, and no 221B (all Watsonian fictions), and no Dr. Watson himself (he died some years ago). It is not even clear that a crime has been committed, and when Holmes recalls Edwardian London, we don’t enter a world of fog webs and echoing cobblestones; we’re in bright sunlight and work our way through his case in a stately, almost leisurely pace.
In short, what we get is a layered story closer to Henry James than to Arthur Conan Doyle. This Holmes is learning, despite his pride as a self-contained reasoning machine, how much he is in thrall to other people’s accounts of him. His evasions of intimacy seem engineered to conceal some crucial secret at the very core of his identity. McKellen (tall, sonorous, and intermittently droll) is especially good in capturing the layers and contradictions of all this—dismissing the famous acts of deduction as parlor tricks while hanging on to them as evidence that his mind still works; the elegant calm masking panic, remorse, and an unkillable sense of curiosity. McKellen comes late to Holmes, so he doesn’t look all that much younger when we flash back to his pre-World War I story, but whether old or older, he creates a unique style of prehensile savoir faire like nothing seen in Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Cumberbatch, or even William Gillette.
Sherlockians will miss the much-beloved references both overt and arcane to the canonical stories that customarily dot Holmes movies and TV shows. But Cullin and Condon are after other game that is no less playful while bringing Holmes into the orbit of meta-fiction that grows out of Holmes’ search for an author and a companion. In Cullin’s book, “The Glass Armonicist” became a full-fledged novella-within-the-novel, complete with its own title page and chapter headings. Not to be outdone, in the film Holmes goes to the movies to see how Watson’s version of the armonica case has been worked out, the old Sherlock Holmes watching a Sherlock Holmes played by Nicolas Rowe who starred in Young Sherlock Holmes. The Glass Armonica itself, we are told, has occult powers important to Mrs. Ann Kelmot desperate for contact with her two unborn babies, a theme that hints at Conan Doyle’s own spiritualist infatuation. Kelmot’s initials prefigure a connection with Tolstoy’s most famous heroine (Anna Karenina provides both actual and false clues; and to the sharp-eyed viewer; a Meissonier painting of Napoleon retreating from Moscow can be read as another clue). Likewise, the bees virtually parody Holmes’ passion—for order, for hierarchies and progressions that can articulate new rational systems of control (“I have been stung 7,860 times. I keep a record”). More delicious is the anti-diary he keeps to track what he can’t recollect.
True, the film wimps out at the end with a soft, rather conventional ending. Holmes is let off easy amidst tears and reconciliations. But this is a film with its own quiet power to bring more than one cold case back to life.Russell Merritt (director/ producer) teaches in the Film Studies program at UC Berkeley. He is the co-author (with J.B. Kaufman) of Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney and is co-author (with Kevin Brownlow and David Gill) of the Emmy-nominated D.W. Griffith: Father of Film.