and the Mystery of the Prosthetic Nose
by Thom Yee
I don’t like old people.
They’re coarse and rough and irritating…
…. And they get everywhere.
Wait… I might be thinking of sand.
Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never really cared for old people, and really that’s not okay. To some extent, we all get a pass for feeling that way because we’re all [most likely] going to get old ourselves, but saying we don’t like old people isn’t really that different than saying we don’t like people because of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
We say we don’t like old people because when they’re not like us our lives are so full of choices that old people are easy to avoid, but then when we become more like them, too often the easiest choices we have are to avoid people entirely. There’s a lot more to truly liking or not liking people than a few of their choices or preferences or whatever we think we can see on the outside, and most of us will eventually find that if we haven’t gotten to know people because we were sure that we shouldn’t, that those were some of the worst choices we could have made.
But that’s what happens when you get old.
What’s it about?
In 1947, the aging Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is in the twilight of his life, having long ago removed himself from active casework, and living the remainder of his days in the lonely English countryside. Long gone are his trusted friend Watson, the glory days of Scotland Yard, and the solving of mysteries that would make him famous, instead replaced with a quiet life of beekeeping and, lately, the procurement of exotic supplements meant to help keep his wits about him. Indeed, he can’t even fully recall the circumstances of the case that brought on his retirement, the truth of which must certainly be far removed from the fictionalized tales that have become widely known and generally accepted as fact despite their embellishments. When Roger (Milo Parker), the inquisitive young son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), becomes curious about Mr. Holmes’ final case, however, the game is once again afoot as Holmes begins putting together what may be the last mystery of his life.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t know much about Sherlock Holmes, or at least I assume I don’t since my primary exposure to the character has been through the recent BBC modernizations, two Guy Ritchie movies, and an acknowledgement (but not viewing) of a currently running American series. As far as I’m concerned, the world’s greatest detective is Batman (a distinction woefully overlooked in most of that character’s cinematic outings), and most of my thoughts of Sherlock Holmes have been a combination of indifference and indolence towards a character so old and so often reinterpreted that he’s passed into public domain with the likes of Robin Hood, King Kong, and Dracula. At best Sherlock Holmes and his stories are fascinating, but that’s a status gained almost entirely by definition, an estimation attributable to a character because he was designed expressly to be fascinating, not because he actually is, was, or remains that way.
But throw Ian McKellen into the role and the story changes. Alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr., Ian McKellen is one of those stars that we’ve come to love no matter their role and no matter how prevalent they’ve become in their many iconic roles, and casting McKellen as the old Sherlock Holmes in many ways feels less like a diminishing of the character in the hopes of another reinterpretation and more like a reinvigoration of the concept and the start of a new franchise. I mean, this is the McKellen we often prefer as Magneto despite the raw animal magnetism and talent of his younger counterpart, the McKellen we revere even as he warns us fools to fly while telling others they shall not pass, and whose homosexuality we not only accept but celebrate because he makes everything in the world feel right. Despite the actor’s’ many years in relative obscurity and his misgivings about his own latter-day celebrity, choosing Ian McKellen to star or co-star in a movie about a widely known character with enduring popularity is very much a mainstream choice, which is why I find it almost baffling that Mr. Holmes is a movie that most haven’t even heard of let alone seen.
Mr. Holmes opened in 361 theatres in mid-July and has never been in more than 900 theatres worldwide in an age when movies like last weekend’s dismal We Are Your Friends opened in 2,333 theatres. To me that feels like an intentionally small opening certain to almost criminally underserve the movie’s potential audience, and it just feels like it could’ve been bigger.
Is it any good?
Mr. Holmes is far from the action-heavy bombast of its Guy-Ritchie-directed counterparts that, together, have grossed almost 700 million dollars. With a 76-year-old lead actor playing a 93-year-old version of the character who’s deep into retirement and just brushing up against senility, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Mr. Holmes is many things, mostly good, but it’s very much subdued and far from thrilling.
Told in three separate narratives — Holmes’ present as an aged retiree, Holmes’ recent past in Japan as he seeks out the restorative properties of a strange plant, and 35 years earlier in the midst of Holmes’ final case — Mr. Holmes is fundamentally the story of an old man losing his way as we are all meant to. Despite retaining his essential abilities as a master of detection, he can’t always remember the people around him, often resorting to writing their names on his sleeve, and he often can’t even sit down or stand up under his own power.
As the story of Mr. Holmes progresses, we find that Holmes is a man whose reputation precedes him, the fantastical stories written by his former companion, Watson, having made him a star. People who see him remark at his mere presence and people who meet him are dismayed to find him without his trademark hat and pipe, leaving him only to laugh at the many factual inaccuracies of his in-print and onscreen depictions. With his faculties diminishing in his old age, he has become increasingly interested in maintaining himself through supplementary substances such as the royal jelly derived from the apiary that occupies much of his time. When Roger, the young son of his housekeeper, one day sneaks into Mr. Holmes’ room, he happens upon Holmes’ unfinished written account of his final case, involving a man hiring Holmes to find out why his wife had changed so much after her multiple miscarriages, and it’s through Roger’s prodding that we find out incrementally more of the events that led to Holmes’ retirement even as Holmes comes to regard Roger with paternal admiration. In separate flashbacks, we also find out about Holmes’ recent trip to Japan in search of the elusive prickly ash that his Japanese benefactor, Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), takes him to find in the ruined remains of Hiroshima. Of course, Mr. Umezaki harbours motivations of his own.
At first I was looking forward to seeing how the three disparate narratives of the story would come together, but eventually, even though there is a mystery at the centre of the story, it became obvious that the movie isn’t really a mystery at all. All throughout the three stories it’s Holmes’ respect for the facts alone that unites the three exploits as they lead him to varying levels of success. In procuring the prickly ash and the hope of improving his memory, he faces disappointment, but it’s a disappointment that ultimately becomes inconsequential to what he really learns of Umezaki. In finally recalling the details of what happened with Mrs. Kelmot he remembers his greatest failing. In finding a latter-day family with Roger and his mother, he finds a measure of contentment. It’s only in resolving all three stories that he finally realizes what’s really important in life.
It’s all pretty good, and life affirming, and it comes together strongly, but to be honest, its conclusion is pedestrian, particularly given the set up. Technically that’s a flaw, and a potentially strong one, but it doesn’t preclude the possibility of the movie’s success.
So should I see it?
If the story of a man facing regret at an advanced age only to find out what really counts sounds boring to you, I’d probably still recommend Mr. Holmes, but with serious reservations. Mr. Holmes is interesting and compelling, beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, and even though it tells a story we should all already know, it carries a message I wouldn’t want to deny in a package that’s hard to resist.
However, it’s nothing new or surprising so much as it’s something good and delightful because that’s what you get when you tell a story with care and you hire Ian McKellen as your star. You can look at all of the separate stories told, pick them apart and question them, but Mr. Holmes is fundamentally a film that’s the sum of its parts, one that would be far less without all of those details and one that finds success in illustrating the importance of its own fiction. It’s not perfect, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thom’s Mr. Holmes final score
On the Edge
- “Mutation”. Ha! Because he’s Magneto in other movies!
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