The upcoming film Mr. Holmes, based on the novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin, is about a 93 year old Sherlock Holmes who is in the process of writing his story and piecing together events from a 30 year old case that he feels is unfinished. In the midst of these endeavors Holmes is also trying to solve the mysteries of humanity and his own mortality. But Sherlock Holmes cannot die, right?
The case made me see that human nature was a mystery that logic alone could not illuminate.”
There are a plethora of pastiches, short stories and novels based on Sherlock Holmes that are outside of Canon, but only a handful really take place during his ‘retirement’. Even Doyle only wrote one story about Holmes after he retired to the Sussex Downs. It appears even the author could not write about his own character withering with age.
For many Sherlock Holmes has become a kind literary messiah: he founded a following of believers, people live by his wisdom, he was resurrected from the grave, he is immortal. Holmes is an idol humanity has placed upon a pedestal; untouchable, unfailing, virtually undefeatable. What would it mean for us to discover that in the end he grew old, he began to fail and he died? How would that shake our faith?
“Mr. Holmes” and the novel it is based upon seem to want to answer these questions. Tackling the taboo subject, they unflinchingly show us a Holmes in decline. We see a deep weariness in those watery blue eyes. A fear of all that is slipping away. A mind palace decaying and turning to rubble. We see that in the end we will all succumb to our inevitable fate.
Of all ruins, that of a noble mind is the most deplorable.”
The themes of mortality run throughout the novel and from the trailer it appears will run throughout the film as well.
There are images which could be clues to the mystery of life themselves: Insects frozen in agar, speeding trains and horse drawn carriages, murky glass, disappearing images, and most poignant of all - an old man and young boy climbing a hill together. Time frozen to be inspected later, time speeding up and hurtling forward by faster means, things that were clear becoming foggy, memories forgotten and that moment where we will walk along with the child inside all of us that has given way to the grown-up we have become.
Humanity fears the march of time. We come up with adages and slogans to make us feel like it is not happening, we create stories about people and places that never give in to the ravages of age. For those who follow the Great Detective, he is a constant in those rooms at 221b Baker Street. We open the pages of Doyle’s stories and there he is, the same as he has always been, ready to take up the next case in an unending cycle of deduction. The thought of him quietly retiring to tend to his bees is almost comforting, for if we cannot find him at Baker Street then we imagine him sitting upon those hills watching the bees. Either way we imagine him in his prime. Which makes the images from the film so much more disturbing.
Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.”
Those watery blue eyes looking a little lost, the aging face, stooped body, shambling steps, this is not the Holmes we know, but it is the one we all will face. Time stops for no one and Holmes is no exception.
I shouldn’t leave this life without a sense of completion.” Ian McKellan as Sherlock Holmes.”