“The great Sherlock Holmes.”
Even after all these years, at the stooped and withered age of 93, Mr. Holmes can’t help but roll his eyes at the way his old friend Dr. Watson always portrayed him in print. His versions of their exploits were so bombastic, or as Watson liked to say in mixed company, they were “penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style.”
The truth is, their work together was never quite so glossy or theatrical as the stories might lead you to believe. It was often a slow piecing together of clues that resisted being dug up, or the drudgery of time mixed with keen observation that eventually bore fruit.
Holmes never really begrudged Watson his literary fripperies, though. He knew that his now deceased partner was a good man who loved the writing side of things, likely more so than the detecting. And all these years later, John’s one of the few who Sherlock misses dearly.
There is one story, however, that Holmes is determined to write himself. He never called himself a writer, but there is something that still cries out to be put to paper … as it really happened. It was his last case. And at its conclusion—or at least he thinks it was concluded—something motivated Holmes to retire straight away from any further detecting work.
But as he sits in his Sussex home in 1947—with his middle-aged housekeeper and her young boy buzzing about like the bees he cultivates out back—his vaunted memory is failing him. He has a picture of a woman in hand. And a page or two of sketched out fragments. But for the life of him, he can’t remember all that happened. Still, this 35-year old case haunts him.
So he will get it worked out. He’ll push his brain and re-piece each ancient clue until the puzzle is pushed together into a recognizable shape. Perhaps the boy, Roger, can even be a help. He has a curious mind and a detective’s temperament. He also has that flame of enduring hopefulness that the young find so easy to keep lit. Perhaps that will push Holmes to recapture a shred of his own youthful optimism.
When Mrs. Munro speaks harshly to the detective, Roger bursts out in anger at his mother, deriding her about her lack of reading ability. Holmes immediately corrects the boy and orders him to apologize. A remembered woman from Holmes’ past appears to be offering to leave her marriage and run away with him. But Holmes sends her back to her husband. (He ends up regretting that, though, and we’ll talk a bit more about it later.)
As Holmes grows closer to Roger and begins enjoying the prospect of teaching a boy (the son he never had?) about beekeeping and mystery solving, he starts to soften as a man. He begins to recognize the struggles and difficulties of people around him and the emotional agonies of someone he knew in the past. And he comes to realize how much he needs his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son in his life. Holmes even offers to give them his property after his eventual death. For his part, Roger quickly comes to look to the aged Holmes as both a mentor and a father figure.
When Mrs. Munro speaks harshly to the detective, Roger bursts out in anger at his mother, deriding her about her lack of reading ability. Holmes immediately corrects the boy and orders him to apologize. A remembered woman from Holmes’ past appears to be offering to leave her marriage and run away with him. And Holmes sends her back to her husband.
Holmes proclaims himself to be a man of logic, not faith. But near the end of the film he sets a circle of small stones around himself—representing important, most beloved people in his life. He then kneels and prays within that circle. (He’s mimicking a Japanese tradition he saw.)
Holmes deduces that someone is a Catholic based on her reaction to the “sin of desire.” He mentions the “black arts.” A woman talks of the dead being “not so far away,” just “on the other side of the wall.”
Holmes speaks of wishing he had accepted a married woman’s subtle proposition to run away together, to, as he puts it, “be alone together.”
A woman commits suicide (offscreen) by stepping in front of an oncoming train. (The act is mourned as a terribly unfortunate and hurtful choice.) Somebody is swarmed by wasps (again, offscreen), and we see him lying on the ground, unconscious and covered in welts. Holmes falls out of bed and cuts his hand, getting blood on his bed shirt.
Holmes recollects taking a trip to Japan looking for a plant called the “Prickly Ash.” His doctor misremembers the substance as “Ashy Prick,” and the pronunciation is played as something of a winking joke.
Then Holmes makes a liquid concoction from that foul herb and has it stirred into his tea and cooked into his food in hopes of stimulating his memory. He moves to actually inject the substance directly into his vein but passes out before doing so. Holmes proclaims that he preferred a cigar over a pipe.
A woman forges her husband’s signature to take money from the bank. Done as a way of comforting someone in pain, Holmes purposely lies in a letter.
This new Sherlock Holmes is a very old Sherlock Holmes. But do not think of such a statement as an elementary deduction.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved sleuth has gone through a number of big and small screen revisions as of late. He’s been reduced, recast and reshaped as everything from a part-time pugilist to a supercharged sociopath to a jittery ex-junkie.
Here, Mr. Holmes—based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, and gracefully portrayed by Ian McKellen—is a much more classic version of the iconic detective. He’s an elderly man with a fading memory who must sort out his own mystery and deduce the rightness or wrongness of his own past choices.
He doesn’t always succeed. His first (and story-concluding) “foray into fiction,” as he calls it, is presented as “just little white lies” that help instead of hurt. And as he begins to see that logic isn’t the only worthwhile thing in life, an element of spiritual mysticism is used to symbolize how he might better engage with the people around him.
Yet his story is a deftly crafted tale of small intimacies and hard-found ruminations. It is a moving, quiet mulling on the place of cold logic—something that was always Sherlock’s stock in trade—in a world full of brokenness and heartache presented in a way that allows viewers to pick through his choices and apply to them some logic (spiritual or otherwise) of their own.
In print, the great detective once said that his methods were simply “founded upon the observation of trifles.” And that is exactly what this film does so wonderfully well.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.