Reflections on “Mr Holmes” (2015, dir Bill Condon, starring Sir Ian McKellen),
based on “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin
by Stuart Fernie
I saw the film first and then read the book – there are slight, if important and telling differences between the two, but the film is generally a very faithful adaptation.
The first point to make about the film is that it is principally a character piece and should not be viewed as standard Sherlock Holmes fare. This is not really a straightforward detective story, but rather the story of a very elderly Sherlock (93 years old and trying to cope with the insidious menace of increasing memory and faculty loss) looking at three periods of his life (present day 1947, the recent past with a trip to Japan and the case which brought about his retirement some 35 years previously), with emotional responses linking all three.
This is a literary piece containing many observations on human relationships in which the beautifully drawn secondary characters take on a life and import of their own rather than merely supply context and structure for Sherlock’s revelations and displays of intelligence, for this is not “merely” a stimulating detective puzzle, but an existential drama which intriguingly invites viewers and readers to challenge the accepted image of the super-sleuth and to consider the price Sherlock has had to pay for his success in the fields of deduction and detection.
The conceit of the piece is that Sherlock was a real person with the famous stories written (and embellished) by his close friend John Watson. Our Sherlock is immediately seen as more human and frail than the logic-driven character of the stories, and this would seem to be at the heart of the film / book.
The key to the whole is emotion and existential responsibility, elements which Sherlock may have failed to recognise in the course of his life (being devoted to reason, fact and truth), but which have undoubtedly helped shape the course of his own life and that of those around him.
In the present (1947), Sherlock has been retired for some 35 years in a remote Sussex farmhouse where he devotes himself to the care of his beehives and is cared for by his widowed and disgruntled housekeeper Mrs Munro and her young son Roger who idolises Holmes, and for whom Sherlock is unexpectedly developing distinctly paternal feelings.
Sherlock’s memory is staring to fail him and we share the impact this has on his life in terms of day to day organisation, confidence and even identity.
In devoting himself to his beloved bees, Sherlock has opted for a lifestyle which is ordered and focused on particular tasks, reflected by the lives of the bees themselves – forming a society in which each individual knows its place and plays its part in the survival of the whole. Clearly this sense of order will appeal to Sherlock’s mentality – no challenge, no emotion, just order which Sherlock helps to maintain through caring supervision and which provides him with satisfaction and a sense of contribution and accomplishment. He is equally convinced of the health benefits of the resultant Royal Jelly which Sherlock reckons may improve his memory loss as well as providing other health-enhancing qualities.
Sherlock comes across a glove which belonged to Edwardian lady Mrs Ann Kelmot (Keller in the book), and he sets about trying to remember the details of this, his final case, and why it prompted him to go into retirement.
It transpires that in solving the case of Mrs Kelmot’s regular disappearances, Sherlock uncovers a depth of emotional pain and loss which is only exacerbated by its discovery, whereupon the poor woman commits suicide – she required emotional support, and for her the cold truth was insufficient and even harmful. Sherlock is doubly pained by this event as not only does he feel to some degree responsible for her death, but he has also found himself quite inexplicably drawn to her. Shattered by this life-changing realisation that emotion can govern his life and that reason, fact and truth are not, perhaps, the be-all and end-all of everything after all, Sherlock decides to withdraw from public life to avoid doing any more potential harm.
Sherlock also recounts his recent visit to Japan to see a Mr Umezaki and to investigate the health-promoting qualities of Prickly Ash, a plant which Sherlock hopes may also improve his memory and general health.
Prickly Ash, it transpires, is merely something of a ruse to allow Mr Umezaki to meet with Holmes and discuss the real reason for Umezaki’s desire to meet Sherlock – years earlier, Umezaki’s father abandoned his wife and young son for a career in diplomacy and possibly espionage following a meeting with Holmes. Umezaki wishes to know the details of that meeting, but Sherlock has no recollection of any such meeting, nor of Mr Umezaki senior himself.
This episode underlines not only the importance of memory and its role in responsibility in our lives, but also the fact that each one of us may inadvertently exercise considerable existential influence on the lives of others. Sherlock recalls similar meetings at which he encouraged individuals to offer service to their nation and seems to recognise that such a meeting might have taken place with Umezaki senior, though Sherlock did not and could not have foreseen the repercussions on others of his advice.
Recognising his friend Umezaki’s pain, Sherlock concocts a story of his father’s duty, devotion and courage to pass on to Umezaki in order to relieve the emotional pain he and his family have suffered through the absence of his father. Although Sherlock may or may not have been partially responsible for Umezaki senior’s disappearance, he sees he can make a difference by creating a fiction to suit the situation, an action surely not in keeping with his previous devotion to reason, fact and truth, but certainly in keeping with one who has developed an emotional intelligence.
Also in the course of his visit to Japan, Sherlock visits the devastated city of Hiroshima where he sees physical and human evidence of the destruction which truly marked the end of one world and the beginning of another. It is also here that he finds a few surviving Prickly Ash plants suggesting, perhaps, that life will always find a way to survive.
Toward the end of the story, young Roger is attacked by a swarm of wasps as he desperately tries to live up to his idol Sherlock’s devotion to the beehives and defends them against a wasp assault.
This may serve two purposes – to emphasise the influence Holmes has had on the boy (and by inference the influence we may all exercise on others without necessarily realising it), but also to force Holmes into recognising his own feelings for the boy and his mother.
Emotion may be denied, but it is nonetheless present and essential. Reason may lend clarity and make life understandable (Sherlock’s purpose?), but emotion, relationships and humanity make it tolerable and worthwhile, though they also entail responsibility which Sherlock has come to recognise and accept.
Book and film
The original book by Mitch Cullin is thoroughly engaging and well written. Full of detail and wry observations of human nature, it also presents less obvious but ultimately very interesting themes involving humanity and understanding.
I understand Mr Cullin’s writing has been criticised by some, but apart from the odd Americanism I found his style (and he uses two in the course of the book) quite captivating and pleasing – any author who can hold my attention while giving a detailed account of beekeeping gets my vote!
There are a few differences between the book and the film, but I would suggest these are positive differences which lend clarity or embellish the existing themes.
Beautifully crafted by all concerned (Mr McKellen is simply masterful), like the book it is not always clear where it is leading, but the film is a very faithful adaptation and is always engaging.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page – I hope you found it of some value.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .