Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our start rating (1-5): 4.5
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
I go back far enough so that actor Basil Rathbone’s narrow countenance is the face of Sherlock Holmes for me, thanks to his performance in a dozen films in the 1940s.
Whoever plays him, Sherlock Holmes has become the personification of the Rational Man—his keen eye (and nose, as we see in the new film) picking up a myriad of details at once, his mind instantly arranging them in an orderly manner to unravel the deepest mystery confronting him. It is a mind unhindered by emotions that blind or confuses us lesser beings. Because of his huge reputation for his crime solving and his emotional detachment, Holmes’s life has been a solitary one, except for his association with Dr. John Watson. It is the theme of aloof detatachment, even loneliness, that this new film singles out at several points. For me Holmes has never been as human, in the sense of being vulnerable, as in director Bill Condon’s work based on what must be a very intriguing novel, screenwriter Mitch Cullin’s own A Slight Trick of the Mind.
The story starts out in 1947 with the now 93 year-old Holmes (Ian McKellan) returning by train to his country home near the Cliffs of Dover. (I love these British movies, including the Harry Potter series, in which we see overhead shots of a line of vintage passenger cars pulled by a colorful puffing steam engine!)
Holmes had been away in Japan, invited there by an admirer of his work. At home he is looked after by his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). His first thought upon returning is to check on his beloved bees. As we will see throughout the story, he is worried that some of them are dying each day. He and Roger, who shares his enthusiasm for bees, have become close, the old man also appreciating the lad’s intelligence and growing analytical ability. Mrs. Munro is not entirely please with their relationship, her later intention to seek employment elsewhere adding a bit of suspense later on.
Alone in his library/study Holmes unwraps the package he has been carrying on the train. Packed in the small wooden box is the prickly ash plant he obtained at Hiroshima, almost buried in the blackened ashes of the atom-bombed city. It is the Japanese counterpart to the worker bees’ secretion known as royal jelly. Holmes’ interest in the two is their reputed beneficial effects in combating dementia. The elderly man is worried about his growing inability to recall names and details of the past. So is his doctor, who gives him a diary and asks him to make a mark in each day’s entry whenever he suffers a memory lapse. The pages are soon filled with the former detective’s marks.
There are a number of flashbacks to the time spent with the Japanese man who had invited him, Tamiki Uzemaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). Part of this includes the debunking of the popular myths surrounding the world-famous detective, such as when at dinner Mr. Uzemaki’s mother expresses disappointment that their guest is not wearing his deerstalker hat. Holmes replies, “That was an embellishment of the illustrator.” He also states that he prefers cigars to a pipe. As these flashbacks progress we learn that Uzemaki has hidden motives for enticing the famous detective to his country.
Other flashbacks take us further back into Holmes’ past to the day when Mr. Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) engaged Holmes to investigate his estranged wife Ann (Hattie Morahan). Depressed over the loss of her two stillborn children, she has taken up the glass harmonica because it is thought to reach the spirits of the dead through it. She “talks” with (or “to”) the two children. The worried Kelmot dismisses her teacher, said to be a medium, forbidding her to have any contact with the old woman. As Holmes follows Ann about town, he notes that she practices writing her husband’s signature, then manages to withdraw money from the family bank account, and obtain a deadly poison from a pharmacist. Convinced of what she is planning to do, Holmes confronts her, urging her to return and rekindle her relationship with the man who still loves her. The result is unexpected, leaving such a negative imprint on the proud detective’s mind that he gives up his profession.
The account of the case is unfinished, the original writer, John Watson, now dead, and Holmes’s defective memory is unable to provide the details. Until—it is Roger and his keen interest in his benefactor that the aged man is able finish writing the story—and reassess his life and values. Among the several prods to Holmes’s memory is the glove that Ann left behind when the detective confronted her. Roger finds it when he is looking through Watson’s old desk still retained by Holmes. After an almost catastrophic accident involving Roger, Mrs. Munro reassess her plans to accept another offer of employment.
The film will be slow moving for some Americans, all too accustomed to the bullet-paced thriller genre, but it is a fascinating character study, with the tender scenes between the old man nearing the end of life and the bright boy just beginning his especially touching. At least a couple of times Holmes expresses his disdain for fiction, and in particular, his deceased friend’s fictionalizing of his cases. In this film when we see a cover of a Sherlock Holmes book “John Watson” replaces that of “Arthur Conon Doyle” as author. This dislike of fiction reflects something that Holmes says to Watson in the book The Sign of the Four: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it (A Study in Scarlet) with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story.” But it is also in that story that we find the rare, if not unique, reference to the deeply buried emotions in the detective. When Dr. Watson is wounded by a bullet, his friend evinces a brief moment of fear and concern, about which Watson states, “It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.”*
It is the “great heart” that this precious film reveals, one opened by the mutual love between the old man and the adoring boy. The 93 year-old no doubt has little time left, but it will be a period graced by the companionship that he had known before only while Dr. John Watson had been alive. And this time, we can be sure, Mr. Holmes will not be as reticent at expressing his feelings toward those devoted to him.
* The Sign of the Four quotes are from Wikipedia’s “Sherlock Holmes”
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of Visual Parables.