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In a way, using the famous Baker Street sleuth as a protagonist for the new film Mr. Holmes is a brilliant bit of shorthand. The story of an aging man, desperate to right the wrongs of his past before slipping into senility, requires only a character who’s devoted his life to dissecting observable data. He might be a police or military analyst, he might be a social scientist, or he might be the world’s most famous detective, but the facts of his case are common—though he possesses a towering intellect, he has only realized near his life’s end that his talent for discerning surface motives has not helped him understand the deeper purposes that drive people. For all he sees, his logic cannot penetrate human nature, not even his own.
To dispense with the backstory of establishing such a character, the movie gives us simply: Sherlock Holmes. As a result, we need know nothing more to feel immediate loss when we see the great investigator’s greatness flicker, when he can’t remember the name of the 10-year-old boy who lives with him or the name of a friend he’s been corresponding with for years. For the first time, the mystery Sherlock must solve has nothing to do with pinning the guilty to the wall and leaving them wriggling but, rather, to presume further on Eliot, spitting out the butt ends of his own days and ways. He must dig into his fading memory to discover what failure in his final case caused him to lose his bravado and abandon the world to keep bees by the sea.
Ian McKellen has the enormous task of imbuing his Sherlock with enough of the qualities we’ve seen in dozens of incarnations before that we will thrill to his arch quips and brisk feats of deduction while still empathizing with an old man increasingly lost in his world. McKellen succeeds in spades, charming us in one moment with his crotchetiness and breaking our hearts with his fear and weakness in another. It will be a crime worthy of Sherlock Holmes if McKellen doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his performance. Moreover, while the story will be too slow for younger viewers, its content with regard to sex, violence, and language is appropriate for all ages: A single crude pun earns the film a PG rating.
Sherlock’s new housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (a lovely Milo Parker) prove to him that what the simpleminded masses need more than answers from the smartest among us is someone to share in their suffering. Early in the film, when Roger asks him if he’s sad when some of his bees die, Sherlock sniffs, “Mourning is commonplace. Logic is rare.” Later he hears Roger ape this elitism toward his illiterate mother and realizes that callousness toward others’ feelings is not a badge of brilliance but the mark of a stunted soul. He also learns that mourning, commonplace as it may be, is blessed as it draws our hearts toward one another.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that in one of the closing scenes, Sherlock lifts his hands in a prayerlike posture, seeming to release the souls of those he’s loved and lost. It’s a generic gesture, with nothing to suggest any specifically Christian faith (if anything, as Sherlock’s inspired by events he witnesses in Japan, it has an Eastern undertone to it), but it’s clearly intended to demonstrate an emotional journey we have never seen Sherlock take in his hundreds of previous incarnations. The great human mind is humbled by the infinitely greater mystery of heaven, and falls to his knees in the face of it.