Mr. Holmes
Produced by BBC Films and See-Saw Films
Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind
Distributed by The Weinstein Company 

Mr. Holmes is the film adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s curious 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind.  Reading the novel, I was reminded of another curious work, Mary Cowden Clarke’s invaluable study The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, first published in 1850 and occasionally reprinted by those who care.  Both works endeavor to imagine the lives of literary characters existing beyond the boundaries of their original tales.  In Girlhood we learn of Ophelia and Desdemona, among others, in the years before their tragic fates; in Slight Trick we learn how Sherlock Holmes passed his declining years in Sussex tending to his bees.  Of course, such works raise a question: Can a character in a play or novel be said to have any meaningful existence before or after the period she or he fictionally inhabits?  The standard critical reply is no.  Characters are imaginative constructs designed to function within an author’s artifice, no more, no less.  What happens, for instance, to Nick Caraway when he returns to the Midwest after Gatsby dies?  It’s an unanswerable question, or should be.  The character fulfilled his function with his last words: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” a lapidary evocation of the American Dream’s illusory hold on the unsuspecting.  Adding to Fitzgerald’s language unavoidably betrays his intention, as Baz Luhrmann’s silly film adaptation proved in 2013.  The frenetic Australian director places Caraway in an asylum from which he tells Gatsby’s story with additional narration as if the novel were nothing more than a clinical investigation of neurosis.  Talk about missing the point.

But perhaps I’m putting the matter too rigidly.  After all, there are characters who have “escaped” the works in which they originally appeared and have gone on to enjoy an afterlife in the imaginations of subsequent writers.  Odysseus has lived on in the works of Dante, Tennyson, and Joyce, just to name three who made liberal and often contradictory use of Homer’s reluctant wanderer.  Sherlock Holmes is undeniably one of these escapees.  The number of hacks profitably purloining Doyle’s creation swells almost monthly.  Although I don’t count Cullin in their dubious league, I’m nevertheless uneasy with his Holmes.  In Slight Trick Conan Doyle’s master detective is presented as a sort of existentialist, convinced that the universe is absurd and, therefore, the pursuit of meaning invariably fruitless.  Yet nowhere in Doyle’s works does Holmes ever express such an opinion.  Indeed, if he had, we’d be left wondering why he expended so much energy in detective work.  Whether knowingly or not, professional detectives perform their work guided by the assumption that under sufficiently intelligent examination, the facts of their various cases, far from being meaningless, will inescapably assemble themselves into revelatory patterns, a circumstance in small of the vaster metaphysical conviction that all things, no matter how seemingly stray, finally add up.  It’s true that by the time he created Holmes, Doyle had rejected his childhood Catholicism, but he clung to the notion that life had purpose.  He embraced spiritualism and the belief that we could correspond with the dead.  It seems Doyle wasn’t satisfied with living in a world devoid of design.  In his own peculiar way he agreed with Chesterton’s Father Brown: Existence is inherently, not to mention divinely, meaningful.

All this is to say that Cullin’s novel, though compelling at times, has little to do with Doyle’s character.  It seems he appropriated Holmes to further his own thematic ends.  Whatever the case, he’s done a fair job of depicting a man regretting in old age that he failed in his earlier years to solve life’s primary mystery: the importance of human contact and the love that can sometimes arise from it.

Screenwriter Jeffery Hatcher and director Bill Condon’s adaptation follows Cullin’s novel closely until the final chapters, when the film tries to soften its conclusion.  Some might think this an improvement. I’m not sure I don’t agree, especially since a character drawn from light popular fiction doesn’t seem to be the ideal vehicle to bear the weight of the novel’s heavy denouement.

In both novel and film, we find the 93-year-old Holmes (Ian McKellen) returning to Sussex in 1947 after a trip to Japan where he’s been searching for prickly ash, a shrub whose leaves are reputed to confer longevity.  More important, to the increasingly forgetful Holmes, the plant is also supposed to restore mental functioning.  This is odd since prickly ash, botanically known as Zanthoxylum americanum, is endemic not to Japan but to middle America and Canada, both a good deal closer to Sussex than Tokyo.  Perhaps Cullin was having a little joke on us.  Or perhaps he couldn’t resist having Holmes discover the prickly ash growing out of the soil of the atomic-blasted Hiroshima, making it a sort of image of both the world’s and Holmes’s rebirth following the inhuman calamity of World War II.  I suppose we’ll have to grant the narrative’s poetic license.  As for the plant’s supposed restorative powers, a quick Google search gives no indication it has such properties.  But Holmes is understandably credulous.  His memory has become so unreliable that he’s taken to writing reminders on his shirt cuffs.  At critical moments, he looks to them for the names he’s scribbled there, such as those of his Tokyo host and his housekeeper’s son.  We can understand why he’s become so foolishly accepting of touted nostrums as long as we forget that in Doyle’s stories he wielded skepticism with Occam-like glee.

Failing memory is more than a matter of characterization; it’s essential to the plot.  When his housekeeper’s son, Roger, discovers a forgotten manuscript of a partially written story in his desk, he urges Holmes to complete it.  The manuscript is an account of Holmes’s last case in 1902, the one that Watson, in his way, tidied up with a satisfying but, as Holmes now thinks, ridiculously false conclusion.  He’s determined to set the record straight, but first he must remember what happened.  Frustratingly, he can’t.  He only senses that whatever it was, it left him so shattered that he retired from his profession.  Here things become quite curious and, to my mind, most interesting.

The case involved Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), a young woman who had suffered two miscarriages in succession.  In her consequent despondency, she’s turned for solace to learning how to play the glass armonica, an instrument constructed of a series of bowls of various sizes, played with moistened fingertips as they rotate.  The unearthly timber and resonance of the instrument contributes to her notion that the babies she had been carrying are now communicating with her from the afterlife.  All the more reason, she thinks, to provide them graves and headstones, although there are no remains to be buried.  Her husband reasons that her desire to memorialize the unborn children is delusional.  Further, he assumes her armonica instructor has for her own malign ends encouraged her morbid fantasy.  He goes to Holmes’s Baker Street office to engage his services in an effort to free his wife from the spell she’s under.  At first, Holmes is skeptical of Kelmot’s story, but when Holmes first sees Mrs. Kelmot, he finds himself oddly attracted to her.  Indeed, as played by Morahan, she is a lovely woman well worth attending to, if only platonically.  It’s not her beauty alone that Holmes finds so compelling; it’s also the evident goodness of her character.  From here the plot doesn’t exactly quicken—this is a slow movie—but it does begin, with various interruptions and many flashbacks, to approach its final thematic focus.

What interests me especially about this film is how it flies in the face of today’s generally accepted notions.  In our time, when aborting the unborn has become so common as to be barely remarkable, Cullin and Condon—both homosexuals, as it happens—have developed a plot that turns on the acute, lingering sadness experienced by a woman who has suffered miscarriages, in the aftermath of which she’s been advised it would be safest not to conceive again.  Not exactly a welcoming premise for today’s popular audience, relentlessly schooled in the inestimable benefits of contraception and abortion.  Nor does the spectacle of male characters responding to Ann’s emotional crisis comport with today’s expectations.  (Oddly enough, Condon directed the execrable Kinsey ten years ago, celebrating the entomologist responsible for convincing many that sex is merely a biological itch that requires frequent scratching.  Love and responsibility didn’t come into it at all for Kinsey.  I wonder: Is Condon making amends with Slight Trick?)

Where do we go from here?  I’ll only say that developments in the story awaken in Holmes a need to go beyond the logic of induction and deduction with which he had so superbly dealt with the world in his capacity as a detective.  He finds himself ineluctably drawn into the human equation that transcends all abstractions.  I’ll also add that I think the members of our current and future Supreme Courts should be required to view this film, despite its narrative deficiencies.  And so should our legislators.  They need, as do we all, a poignant reminder of the mysterious stakes involved in any woman’s pregnancy.

All the players are excellent, even though Laura Linney as Holmes’s housekeeper has been faulted for not executing a perfect Sussex accent.  Being from Brooklyn myself, I didn’t mind at all.  I’m not a fan of McKellen’s histrionics, but here he admirably reins in his theatricality to give us a restrained and convincing portrait of a man painfully discovering his advancing limitations.  However, it’s Milo Parker, the young actor who plays Roger the housekeeper’s 14-year-old son, who becomes the heart of the film.  He’s uncannily convincing as a boy who has suffered the loss of his father and is looking for a man worthy to replace him.  You understand completely why he would find that man in the aging Holmes, and why the usually irascible Holmes would be so entirely moved by the boy’s adulation that he would be inspired to solve his last and, in Cullin’s hands, most personal mystery.