Sherlock Holmes. Iconic detective, 93 years old. Tending his bees in bucolic self-exile near the Dover coast. Mycroft gone. Watson gone. Mrs. Hudson gone. Even the band of villains and criminals who made him who he was are gone. All he has left are his memories and his bees. And his memories are failing.
It’s 1947 and the countryside still bears the visible scars of the recent war. Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned from a trip to Japan to see a mysterious contact who promises a rare, native plant will help him with his senility. In England, Holmes raises bees to harvest the royal jelly, then touted as a miracle cure, but so far it hasn’t worked. He travels to the far side of the planet to find another cure, but instead is confronted again with his past. A past he cannot clearly recall.
Holmes returns from Japan to tackle his final case: wresting the truth of his last case from the vault of his own brain. It’s a story made famous through Watson’s tale, itself turned into a popular movie in the 1930s (and you get a brief view of that film, with Holmes in the audience smiling wryly at his fictional self onscreen…. the fictional character watching another fictionalization).
This isn’t a film about a new case, or even about an old case with new evidence. It’s about Holmes trying to tell the truth about a case long since solved and almost forgotten. To tell the truth about a case that touched his heart, not just his brain.
Tell it to whom? To himself.
He’s dying, of course. His body is deteriorating like his memory. But death isn’t the tragedy here. Meaning is. As his memory fades, so go the events that gave his life meaning. The Great Detective, the hero of Watson’s well-spun tales, is just an old man now, clinging to some quaint anachronisms while he slowly – agonizingly – pieces together the fragments of memory to write the truth behind his final actions as a detective.
It’s Sherlock Holmes trying to remember his life as a man, not a caricature. Its Sherlock Holmes, puttering with his bees, stumbling about the house, acting a non-comic Grumpy Old Men role.
Helping him – his only reader of his writing, in fact – is Roger (Milo Parker): a young boy whose mother is Holmes’ housekeeper (Laura Linney).Through Roger Holmes finds a reason to write his story. The fly in his ointment is that the housekeeper plans to leave and take her son with her to another job in another town. Holmes faces isolation, loneliness and abandonment is they go.
It’s not a buddy flick: Roger doesn’t help Holmes resurrect his past. He reminds Holmes that we not only go through life, but we need to leave something behind for those still living. Roger provides a touchstone to Holmes’ humanity.
It’s that humanity that’s at stake. Holmes has been played as cold, intellectual, unemotional, even misanthropic. He was Spock a century before space travel. Jeremy Brett’s brilliantly rude, sharp-tongued and crabby version of Holmes is the epitome of the character. Holmes found himself living in that role when he lived on Baker Street. It’s an old, shabby suit in Dover.
This Holmes is a frail and vulnerable character; not the fictional detective created by his friend Watson (this approach is also seen in the new Sherlock series). That’s a person Holmes never wanted to be, but now Watson has gone, has some longing for. He hid behind his persona so long that, at the end of his life, he struggles to redeem his humanity, to find his emotions.
And that, in essence is what the film is about: redemption through affection. Not necessarily love, but rather the simple touch of another’s hand in yours. It’s not about close, endearing friendships, or long lost loves. Just the daily exercise of closeness, of being human, of making contact through emotion, that redeems us.
It’s a simple film; the story itself is thin and uncomplicated, sometimes not very coherent (at least not well explained onscreen). It travels back to two period-piece settings: London 30 years past, and Japan post-war. The oddly-set latter piece has a role to play in the character development, but it is jarring to see Holmes walking through the blackened stumps of the woods just outside Hiroshima.
It’s a slow film, with beautiful acting by everyone involved, almost more of a Henry James homage than one to Conan Doyle. If you expect Sherlock Holmes to come back from his retirement to be the hero of an adventure, this isn’t the film you’re looking for. But if you’ve ever wondered about Holmes post-Doyle, who the man would be without the pipe and deerstalker, then this will give you something to ponder.