Watching Mr. Holmes (dir. Bill Condon, 2015)

Mr-Holmes2Mystery surrounds the circumstances of Sherlock Holmes’ retirement to Sussex to keep bees. What prompted it? Conan Doyle, or more properly John H. Watson, never told us, although ‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ and ‘His Last Bow’, both of which occur after Holmes’ retirement, suggest that, if his powers had been waning, he was still able to exercise them well enough to solve such mysteries as came his way. However, there seems to be a minor cottage industry in filling in the gap in Conan Doyle’s record, involving stories about Holmes’ encounters with various would-be apprentices, of the bee-keeping and detecting persuasions. I’ve said before that I’m not that interested in sequels by another hand. They rarely if ever seem to strike the right note, and frankly I’d rather stick with canon. In going to see Mr. Holmes at all, I was breaking my own rules, but well, Ian McKellen … and I admit I was intrigued by the idea of a film based round the idea of a Sherlock Holmes who is struggling with a failing memory, brought about by extreme old age.

The Holmes we see in Mr. Holmes is very different to the one we might be used to. It is 1947, he’s ninety-three, he’s physically frail and walks with a stick. Nonetheless, he has just undertaken a gruelling journey to Japan, in search of a plant called prickly ash, which he has been led to believe will improve his memory, which is apparently also deteriorating. But why is this suddenly of such urgency to Holmes? Is it because he fears the onset of senility, or is it that he cannot accept that his physical strength is waning? Knowing what we do of Holmes, we might even wonder if he is faking it for some reason – ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’ comes to mind, as do a slew of other stories in which Holmes successfully disguises himself to the point where Watson cannot recognise him – but his housekeeper Mrs Munro’s anxious response to his arrival home, calling in his doctor, and the doctor’s questions serve to suggest that this deterioration is for real.

Gradually, we come to realise that Holmes is struggling desperately to remember the details of his final case, and the reason why he abandoned his detective practice and retired to the country to raise bees. That is, we are dealing with a detective story in which the detective is the mystery he is trying to solve. All the clues are contained within himself if he can but locate them, but that retrieval is proving rather difficult. Taking royal jelly has failed, and so has rereading Watson’s highly embroidered account of the case. Taking prickly ash will fail in turn. Now, Holmes is attempting to jog his memory by writing down the details he does recall. However, it is his conversations with Roger, his housekeeper’s son, who discovered and read the manuscript while Holmes was in Japan, that will prove to be most effective in recalling things.


As is the way of a Sherlock Holmes story, the detective element of the plot, while not slight, follows a familiar course. A series of events have occurred which point to a very obvious solution, one which Roger, the young and inexperienced Watson analogue, inevitably identifies, while of course, the more experienced Holmes, who has trained himself to look behind the veil of the mundane, will reinterpret the facts to show a different story, in this case precipitating a tragedy. As is also the way with a Sherlock Holmes story, some of the story’s elements tend to the outlandish – in this instance, a glass harmonica appears to be involved in a case of potential murder.

At this point, though, it’s worth considering what has caused Holmes to suddenly become so concerned about solving the ‘Adventure of the Detective’s Lost Memories’. The answer is simple, and perhaps from what we’ve seen by this point, unsurprising: mortality. Holmes’ search for an answer is prompted by the recent death of his brother, Mycroft, and the retrieval of various papers from the Diogenes Club. These include Watson’s accounts of Holmes’ various cases. It is while reading Watson’s account of that final case that Holmes realises that not only is it inaccurate, he can no longer recall what actually happened, although this case brought about such profound changes in his life. Watson is also dead, and we discover that he and Holmes were in fact estranged at the time of Watson’s death. We may reasonably assume that Mrs Hudson is also dead, and probably Lestrade and Gregson too. In other words, Holmes has outlived everyone who once knew him as himself rather than as Sherlock Holmes, the creation of John Watson, and there is no one to whom he can turn for clarification of what happened in the past.

This contrast between Holmes as man and Holmes as detective overshadows the entire film, not least for the audience, knowing that Sherlock Holmes is entirely fictional. True, for his doctor, Holmes is his patient, first and foremost, but he is still Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ relationship with Mrs Munro is more elusive. She is no Mrs Hudson – this is indicated in her indifferent cooking – but while she to some extent protects Holmes from those people who seek his help, she nonetheless also seems to resent him in some way not fully articulated in the film’s opening sequence.

mr holmes ian-mckellen-laura-linneyAs the film proceeds, we can see that she does not enjoy her job, and perhaps does not care to live in the country. She is preoccupied with the thought of finding a job in Portsmouth, and almost the only time we see her looking bright and alert is when she returns from a trip to Portsmouth for an interview. Also, she is unhappy about Holmes’ growing influence over her son, particularly once he takes Roger on as apprentice beekeeper. At the heart of her resentment, perhaps, is the issue of memory. Mrs Munro is a war widow; her husband was a pilot who seems to have died early in the war. Although Mrs Munro can tell Roger stories about his father – most significantly, stories about how Mr Munro would tell stories from Roger’s suggestions, always including Roger – Roger cannot offer her spontaneous memories of the man she has lost, because he has none, being too young to have formed any. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Munro fears she will lose her own memories of her husband, because she has no one she can talk to. (In an aside later, we learn that while she has a sister, she and that sister do not get along, so Mrs Munro, like Holmes, is adrift in a world which does not know her for herself.)

As noted, it is the conversations with Roger which mostly seem to spark Holmes’ memories; as he records them, they prompt other recollections, and one might suspect that Holmes is deliberately using Roger’s burgeoning skills as a detective. Gradually, the story unfolds. Mr Lemott married a beautiful young woman, they hoped for children but she experienced serial miscarriages and they were told they should not try for more children. Lemott is determined to accept his fate and look to the future, but in doing so is unable to acknowledge his wife’s grief. He refuses to allow her to erect headstones to their lost children because they weren’t proper babies – the sharp look Mrs Hudson gives him at this point speaks volumes – but is glad when she starts lessons on, of all things, the glass harmonica as this apparently affords her some comfort. When she becomes obsessed with the instrument, he grows concerned and refuses to pay for her lessons. Bills from the teacher prompt him to believe that she is taking lessons in secret, and he cuts off her access to money, as well as following her when she goes out. Holmes quickly establishes that Mrs Lemott is funding someone else’s lessons, because she wants to hear the music. When Lemott follows her to the teacher’s rooms, she seems to disappear on the stairs – Holmes realises that she has used to a concealed door to sit in the garden and listen.

mrholmeswomanholmesfollowsmckellenbenchcostumesFor the contemporary reader, some of what is happening here is only too obvious. Mrs Lemott is perhaps suffering from post-natal depression and is grieving in her own way for her lost children, but this does not fit with Lemott’s understanding of how grief should be enacted. There is more than a passing nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in the way he attempts to effect a cure – that is, to restore what he believes to be normal. Holmes, of course, is drawn by the unusual features of the case, with its faint echoes of ‘The Adventure of the Man With the Twisted Lip’ and other cases of untoward disappearances.

A series of events can be construed as one thing – in this instance, we are invited to suppose that Mrs Lemott is about to murder her husband and run off with her lover – or as something else entirely. Holmes sees that Mrs Lemott is intending to take her own life, while constructing a story for his benefit, in which it would appear that she is planning to murder her husband and run off with her lover. She has engineered a confrontation with Holmes in the hope that he will acknowledge her suffering and offer the sympathy her husband cannot. But as Holmes will admit at the end of the film, having elicited the facts, and seen Mrs Lemott pour away the poison, he failed to understand that this would in no way alleviate her suffering. His emotional detachment leads to his refusal of the overture she has made and he sends her back to her husband; instead, she dies in front of a train not an hour later.

Watson will cast this tragic story as a melodrama in order to protect those involved, and concoct a story of murder via lead poisoning from the glass harmonica itself – which is what I thought was happening at first, before Holmes unravelled a different story. Holmes and Watson will quarrel over Holmes’ apparent inability to get over the death he has caused, thanks to his arrogance and emotional withdrawal (echoing Lemott’s own failure to appreciate his wife’s grief). Holmes, belatedly realising the cost of his insistence on the truth, and his failure to understand Mrs Lemott’s emotional needs, then withdraws from his work as a consulting detective, because he cannot accept the pain the knowledge brings.

We might assume then that Holmes has so far failed to understand also Mrs Munro’s emotional needs as she grieves for her husband and endeavours to move on with her life. Hence, one may envisage her alarm as her son and her employer appear to forge closer ties. As if to emphasise this point, the film turns then to Holmes’ visit to Japan, at the invitation of Mr Umezaki, the man who is to provide him with the prickly ash plant. How they initially made contact with one another is unclear but once in Japan Holmes immediately becomes aware that Umezaki is not, as he claims, a long-time devotee of Holmes’ work on bees. Instead, we learn that when he was young his father went away to Britain, leaving him and his mother, and never returned. Instead, he sent the child Umezaki a copy of A Study in Scarlet and urged the child to take Holmes as his example. Umezaki has, it would seem, brought Holmes to Japan, in order to learn about his father. Except it seems likely that Holmes never met Umezaki senior.

MRHOLMES081436483533The crises in this story are twofold. First, there is Mrs Munro’s determination to move to Portsmouth to work in a hotel, taking Roger with her to also work there. Roger is against the idea, believing that with a proper education he can do much better in the world. This turns out to be much the same argument as his father presented to his mother when he determined to become a pilot rather than remaining a mechanic. Roger it would seem is unwittingly very much his father’s son, but Mrs Munro would rather stifle that ambition in order to keep her son with her, as he is well aware. Roger uses Holmes as a means to force his mother to admit what she has done and then shames her. Holmes insists, as a father might, that Roger must apologise (and we might see here a hint that Holmes is well aware that the act of detection brings with it responsibilities). This is balanced by Holmes later finding Roger lying in the meadow, covered in stings, apparently dead from anaphylactic shock. Holmes acts immediately by calling an ambulance and returning to the stricken boy, but fails to call Mrs Munro, who sees this as the ultimate betrayal: she has lost her husband, and seems likely to lose her son.

Later that evening Holmes finds her attempting to set fire to the hives, believing that the bees have killed her son. Yet, as the audience will already know, perhaps without realising it, Roger is not allergic to bee stings. Holmes realises that Roger has in fact solved a mystery that has been puzzling the beekeepers – why do the bees keep dying? The culprits are wasps, which attacked Roger when he tried to destroy their nest, and he is instead allergic to wasp stings. Having convinced Mrs Munro of this, the two instead destroy the wasps’ nest. Meanwhile, Holmes has come to terms with his failure to save Mrs Lemott and has finally been able to complete his version of the story, helped in part by Roger’s discovery of the missing glove.

As a result of this Holmes is able to admit his failure to Mrs Munro, to express his appreciation to her and ask her to stay as housekeeper. It comes in a perhaps roundabout way, by telling her that he has left everything to her and Roger, the implication being that this has been his plan all along. Roger, of course, survives. But there is another thing that Holmes feels he must do, and that is to write to Mr Umezaki, who has written to him to announce the death of his mother. Here Holmes offers him what is almost certainly an entirely fictional version of what his father was doing in Britain, serving the British government in Malaya. The telling detail in the vignette we see is Holmes advising Mr Umezaki to say nothing to his family. All of this is, we are led to believe, entirely fiction – this is the only time we ever see Holmes work at Watson’s old desk rather than his own – but it is Holmes’ acknowledgement that sometimes a piece of fiction can bring a form of comfort, although we know already that Roger’s attempts to reassure his mother than he does remember his father are not enough.

And it is perhaps significant too that Holmes finally writes his own account of the Lemott affair not in his study but in his bedroom, while confined there as the result of his experiments with prickly ash. It is as though once he is forced to step back a little from the reminders of his life as a detective he can see matters a little more clearly. Indeed, I have my doubts as to whether Holmes’ failing memory is an organic deterioration so much as a selective amnesia – a psychological refusal to remember, now so engrained it has taken him over. It’s significant, perhaps, that it is names he specifically has trouble with. His ability to deduce and analyse seems otherwise unimpaired, even though his physical strength is, unsurprisingly, waning.

By the end of the film everything has changed. Roger is teaching his mother how to care for bees – what will become in due course her bees (it is emphasised several times that it is the queen bee who is in charge, and she is of course the husbandless mother; given both Holmes and Roger at times also protect the hives, this suggests a complication of each of their roles within the film). This signals that Roger does not expect to be at the farmhouse as he grows older, at least for a while, and Holmes of course must inevitably die (the one thing he will never entirely do, of course, despite Conan Doyle’s best endeavours), but indicates too that Mrs Munro is now anchored. As for Holmes, he can mourn his own dead while rejoicing in his own comparative vitality. How close this is to the original novel – A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin – I’ve no idea. Having seen the film, I’m not sure I want to know.

It is a curious film, rather chewier than I initially expected, though it does at times indulge in a little hand-waving. That the film is set post-World War II is sketched by a crashed fighter plane still embedded in a British cornfield, when I’m fairly sure it would have been long since removed. In the same way, Mr Umezaki takes Holmes to what is all too quickly shown to be Hiroshima, and finds the prickly ash growing in the roots of a tree in a forest razed by the blast. I’ve no idea whether this is actually biologically possible but it was perhaps a little too freighted with the symbolic. (I am also tired of films that signal death by headstones no freshly filled graves – they are supposed to settle first, for obvious reasons.) Having said that, I’m prepared to indulge the film slightly when it was so good in so many other ways.

I particularly liked how fractured the film’s structure was, the way it shifted back and forth in time, and from place to place, representing the fragility of memories, and their abrupt resurfacing. The film’s general appearance was gorgeous, particularly the long sequence as Holmes returns to his house in deepest Sussex, and the scene where he and Roger go down to the beach to bathe, the shots both suffused with golden autumnal light, as if to reflect Holmes’ great age. The scenes in Japan, by contrast, are grey, as if to reflect what Japan suffered as a result of the war.

McKellen’s performance as the elderly Holmes is everything you’d expect from an actor of his calibre, warm and terrifying by turns, as he grapples with infirmity and loss of memory. His portrayal of Holmes as a working detective, in his late fifties, early sixties, is nicely done, but he excels as the elderly Holmes – at times a little bewildered by the way his body is giving up on him but still alert, still cognisant of what is going on around him, still able to analyse the signs, solve the mysteries. The scenes between McKellen and Milo Parker as Roger are exquisitely done. We feel often that we are simply eavesdropping on real conversations as they meander around the garden or walk down to the sea. At the same time, Parker turns in an incredibly powerful performance, no more so than in his denunciation of his mother’s expectations of him. The anguish of ‘She wants me to be a boot black’ when he knows he is capable of so much more is heartrending. Laura Linney’s performance as his mother is restrained, which seems appropriate given the grief bottled up in her. Roger Allam as the doctor and Hiroyuki Sanada as Tamiki Umezaki turn in similarly poised performances, with a beautifully over-the-top cameo from Frances de la Tour as Madame Schirmer, the glass harmonica teacher. By contrast, Hattie Morahan’s Mrs Lemott is quite steely.

I was hoping for an interesting film and I definitely got that, more so even than I’d anticipated. Mr. Holmes turns out to be a powerful meditation on memory and ageing, built on a very competent Sherlock Holmes story.MR Holmes 4