We’re fascinated by superheroes. Our fascination mainly stems from the fact that no matter how much we get to know them, we never get to know them enough; they keep surprising us over and over again. At the brink of every new challenge, of every new puzzle or danger, we still hold the belief that their lives are at risk, that their powers may falter, that they may not make it — till they, unsurprisingly, do.
Sherlock Holmes is such a superhero. As a matter of fact, Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation was the defining hero of its time: The prototypical Victorian superhero. Without any superpower, as the figures fabricated by the then incipient comic industry for the baby boomers’ of the postwar era, and bereft of any divine or celestial ancestry (or intervention), as were the superheroes of antiquity, Holmes was the absolute man of logic — and thus, the perfect mystery solver. Restrained, asexual, unemotional and incapable of falling for any kind of sentimentality, the genius of Baker Street was the pinnacle figure of an era that made repression synonymous with virtue. Victoria’s triumphs were Albert’s ailments — of education as mastery over one’s sphincters.
Holmes, however, was such a humongous hero that he ended up transcending his time, his era, his generation, just to become a figure fully belonging to the public domain: A metonym. This is the kind of figure that can be known even at the midst of the greatest ignorance; a person may ignore who Conan Doyle was, may haven’t read any of his stories, may haven’t watched any movie (quality notwithstanding) about or with the cunning detective as a protagonist, may even haven’t heard of him at all but they surely all know the meaning behind “elementary, my dear Watson” (a phrase that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock never uttered) or the irony behind being called “Sherlock” at the end of a rather rudimentary deduction — of the hero as a figure of speech.
Mr. Holmes takes this premise to our postmodern times; that is, it looks at the demythification (destabilization) of a most stable myth. After the BBC’s attempt to infuse some Viagra to the saga by having Benedict Cumberbatch reincarnating the British Master and Robert Downey Jr.’s millennial update, courtesy of Guy Ritchie’s rapidly wearying franchise, comes an aging, haunted and senile Sherlock Holmes — a coming to age film.
Retired in his pastoral state next to the English coast, Holmes spends his days taking care of his bees and battling early symptoms of senile dementia. It is 1947, and Holmes has lived the second War in his silent exile. At 93, he’s still trying to remember the mistake, the “something terribly wrong” he did that forced his rather premature retirement. We catch him in his way back from Japan, where an amateur herbalist and a (supposedly) Holmes’ enthusiast invited him to find a rare plant that might help him claim some of his memories back. Particularly, he wants to remember that last case, as he’s trying to write his own story (rather tardily) so as to correct the “many misconceptions” (now turned clichés) produced by his sidekick’s enamored imagination — Watson was the Plato for this Socrates . . . now urged to write down his own version, the true version of his thought.
These three plots (an aging Holmes wanting to write his version of the facts behind his last case, the actual story of said case [what Watson purportedly related in the mystery of the Glass Armonica], and his Japanese venture) are told concurrently, in a back and forth narrative threaded through a series of feeble flashbacks. The most interesting story though is the one at the core of the movie, the one that finds an old Holmes living almost on his own in his Sussex state (in a no-sex home). Accompanied by his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro and, more importantly, her son, Roger, Holmes’ strenuous effort to retrieve the rather unfortunate outcome of his last case progressively grows into a bonding vehicle with Mrs. Munro’s child; a boy for whom he tries to become a paternal figure (for the kid can barely remember his father . . . yet another casualty of war) even though he knows he can only aspire to provide him with some grandparental time.
Directed by Bill Condon, Mr. Holmes seems to suggest the once promising filmmaker is gradually coming back in shape. His remarkable first feature (if we obviate his horrific debut, a dubious contribution to the “Candyman” risible series), “Gods and Monsters” (which also counted with a stellar performance by Ian McKellen [“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”]), as well as his following feature, the very bold “Kinsey,” showed a most promising talent in the making. Then started a ten year hiatus that went from the forgettable (“Dreamgirls”) to the preposterous (the two last entries in the “Twilight” saga). When Condon returned to the helm as a portraitist with the unpleasantly uninteresting “The Fifth State”, we were justified in thinking that vampires had dried him up.
Mr. Holmes thus came as a pleasant surprise. The narrative is still clumsy (though this seems to be also one of the main flaws in Mitch Cullin’s novel, on which the film is based) and the plots never quite gel. This makes for a rather stiff third act, as, by the time everything comes together, the puzzle has ceased to entice us. The most compelling story, the one about the superhero at his twilight years (excuse the unintended witticism), seriously suffers from the two parallel plots that end up getting in the way much more than enhancing the main character’s story. And there’s also an audience-pleasing denouement (not included in the novel) that makes for a corny, oversentimental final scene.
So where’s the pleasant surprise? you may be asking. Well, despite the narrative sloppiness and the lazy shortcuts that lead to the third act, Condon is able to focus again on what proved to be his forte. He looks at the man behind the myth (or at the fictional man behind the fictional hero) and shows him to us at his frailest. What Condon proves in Mr. Holmes is that a living legend is an oxymoron of sorts. Since living already entails aging, legends are not supposed to be living beings. This is very aptly shown in an excellent opening sequence, as the old man steps out the train in which he’s coming back home only to be seen by an old woman at the station who (knowing the rumor that the epic detective has there his retirement lodgings) ardently asks whether “that’s him!?!” — as any tiresome tourist tends to do. And “him!?!” walks by, weakening, wearily, withering away from sight.
Heroes, and superheroes for that matter, are not necessarily immortal, as they may (and often) die epic deaths. Heroes, legends, mythical figures, however, never age, for they’re essentially larger than life. Those who die epic deaths are able to continuously reemerge from the ashes like a Phoenix bird (rather than to relentlessly submerge in the sand like a bird in Phoenix). All heroes bear the capacity to reappear whenever they’re needed, and they do so young, strong, cunning and perfectly adept to solve, fight and/or rescue whatever they’re needed to.
Mr. Holmes is not only mortal, but also extremely fragile. And this is to McKellen’s credit. His dry and unemotional portrayal works most harmoniously with his tender and caring undertones. And he’s also very well supported, chiefly by Laura Linney’s earthly and gutsy performance. Hers is a determined depiction of an uneducated, not particularly virtuous widow who’s still mourning the loss of her heroic husband (a man that will never age) and who’s main asset is trying her best to be a good mother for her very clever and exceptionally gifted son, Roger (charmingly portrayed by Milo Parker). Mrs. Munro thus comes as an often touching antagonist at the midst of the blooming relationship between Roger and Mr. Holmes.
So, as you may have already deduced, there’s nothing particularly notable in Holmes’ retiring home — his farm at the side of the coastline is the exact opposite to his place at Baker Street (right across 221B, as Watson would have it to confuse people like the aforementioned lady in the station). Roger, in this case, would be the closest to notable in Holmes’ environment, and the old man seizes him with the emotional strength he obviously lacked in his past.
It is in this way that Condon takes Cullin’s metaphor of Holmes’ last passion (already present in Conan Doyle’s work), his apiary, and infuses in it a most satisfying counterpoint. Holmes hatred towards wasps quietly unfolds as a form of self-hatred. For years, Holmes has been trying to become a bee rather than a wasp (and there couldn’t be anything more WASP than Arthur Conan Doyle), to become a part of a bigger whole and work for something greater than himself (the queen? that’s unclear, though he certainly worked for her . . . in every possible sense). He cares for bees who are self-sacrificing, solidary animals always able to look after the good of the hive itself. Wasps, on the other hand, are solitary, individualistic insects with parasitic reproducing habits that tend to lay their eggs in other insects’ nests — once the egg has hatched, its product will kill all till away they fly. The hosts dead by the sting of their guests. Holmes, and in particular Holmes’ memory (the main tool of any intellect dependent on facts), is steadily stung by a past that, as does the wasp, didn’t leave its sting — his.