‘Mr. Holmes’ is the most Holmesian Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes continues to be a popular character, but in today’s versions he still defeats Moriarty, but also regressively must be shown as somehow superior to Irene Adler. “Mr Holmes” doesn’t dabble in this re-writing of the Holmes character and instead finds him coming to terms with mortality, old age and his anti-social character.

Irene Adler was the only woman for whom Holmes held a certain regard. We don’t really hear much about his mother. Adler is “the woman.” She appears only once in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” but she’s mentioned in other stories. She supposedly leaves the U.K. newly married to Godfrey Norton for the U.S.

On the BBC One “Sherlock” series (2010 to present), Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) meets Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in the second series first episode “A Scandal in Belgravia.” She is not an actress, who marries an attorney, but a dominatrix who has compromising photos of a member of the royal family. She is saved by Holmes in Pakistan.

In the American TV series (2012 to present), “Elementary, ” Irene Adler is also Jamie Moriarty. She is not only a criminal, she is also Holmes’ (Jonny Lee Miller) former lover. She fakes her death and she is fooled by Watson (Lucy Liu) although she also saves Watson by arranging for the death of a drug lord who threatens Joan Watson’s life.

In the Robert Downey Jr. movie series (the 2009 “Sherlock Holmes” and the 2011 “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”), Adler is in love with Holmes and also in league with Moriarty, becoming involved in a bombing plot.

In the Doyle story, she is amused by Holmes, and fools him. She is respectable enough to make a marriage with an attorney. She is the more famous of two women who fool Sherlock. Understanding women and even emotional lives is a weakness of Sherlock Holmes. At the end of the story, Holmes keeps a photo of her.

Adler doesn’t appear in “Mr. Holmes” at all, but Holmes (Ian McKellan) is haunted by the photo of another woman. He can’t remember quite why, but he endeavors to write about this woman and why she was his last case. John Watson has passed away and it was just after Watson moved out to be with  his wife that Holmes became involved in this case. Watson would later write about it and call it “The Adventure of the Dove Grey Glove.” Holmes is troubled that Watson wandered away from the truth and now wishes to correct the facts of his last case, one that took place 30 years ago. Holmes is now 93. The year is 1947. At the beginning of the movie, Holmes has just returned from Japan, carrying a box wrapped in a furoshiki with a plant inside.

Holmes is sharp enough to know the difference between a wasp and a bee. When he returns to his cottage in a small Sussex village, we learn why he went to Japan and that he now is cared for by a widow, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and, at first, a bit annoyed by her curious son Roger (Milo Parker). The movie shows us in flashback Holmes’ journey to Japan and his last case while chronicling is growing friendship with Roger.

I haven’t read the Mitch Cullen book, “A Slight Trick of the Mind” upon which the movie is based. But in this adaptation written by Jeffrey Hatcher (“The Duchess”) and directed by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters,” “Chicago” and “Kinsey” as well as “The Twilight Saga”), calls Adler to mind with the way the photo haunts Holmes. The naming of the housekeeper also recalls another incident in which a woman fooled Holmes: “The Adventure of the Yellow Face.” Grant Munro was the name of the husband who is sure his wife, Effie, is having an affair. The case that troubles Holmes in this movie also involves a jealous husband, Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy).

Condon also gives another parallel between young and old by casting Nicholas Rowe in a movie within this movie. Rowe played the title role in the Barry Levinson 1985 movie “Young Sherlock Holmes.” Rowe is now 49. He was 19 at the time of “Young Sherlock Holmes.”

At the end of Yellow Face adventure, Holmes asks, “Watson, if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.” There is no one to whisper “Norbury” in Holmes’ ear. Adler is long gone. Watson has died. Mrs. Hudson is also dead. The woman at the center of “The Adventure of the Dove Gray Glove” is also dead. Soon enough Holmes will join them, but McKellan’s Holmes alternates between a commanding Holmes recalling the confident man of the original tales and a man who at times feels his amazing mental powers dulled and even stolen by old age. It is a heartbreaking portrayal that is softened by Holmes’ realization that the truth can sometimes be unkind and that kindness matters. It is a lesson that Watson tried to teach Holmes and that Holmes finally understands.

“Mr. Holmes” is currently available on Amazon Video ($3.99). Milo Parker was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards and Ian McKellen was nominated by the Online Film Critics Society and the San Francisco Critics Circle for Best Actor awards.

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