I have been incredibly excited about this movie ever since I heard about it. Sir Ian McKellen, playing an aging Sherlock Holmes? Goodness, yes. You don’t even need to be a giant fan of the detective to want to see that.
There’s a lot to like about the movie. McKellen is every bit as wonderful as you’d expect, and then some, playing Holmes at two different ages, portraying a man who relies on his mind yet battles with steadily worsening memory loss. There are so many layers of humanity, kindness, and regret that he plays out as Sherlock, along with occasionally being the human personification of grumpy cat. The supporting cast does wonderful work as well, particularly Milo Parker as Roger, the boy who develops a friendship and then a quasi-familial relationship with the aging detective. Laura Linney does an amazing job as Roger’s mum, Mrs. Munro, a woman who lost her husband in the war. The familial conflict in there as Mrs. Munro plainly feels she’s losing her son to Sherlock is beautifully and heartbreakingly done. It’s a gorgeous, occasionally funny film with a multi-layered narrative that plays through three timelines.
So yes, it’s definitely worth watching, for the Ian McKellen factor alone–and there’s so much more to it. But my god, the last five minutes made me so damn angry. I honestly don’t feel that I can really discuss what I want to about the movie without massively spoiling it, so be warned. Spoilers start here and continue until the end.
The entire point of most of the film is Sherlock’s relationship with truth and fiction. The plot line about the mystery “he never solved” (he actually did solve it) that gets mentioned in the trailer revolves around the fact that he can’t remember how the case ended, as the memory loss slowly eats away at his mind. He struggles mightily to recount the case, page by page, prompted along by Roger’s desire to know the truth as well. The truth comes out as this: An American hires Sherlock to follow his wife, who is “acting strangely.” The wife, Ann, had been trying desperately trying to have children, and lost them all to a series of miscarriages. This had thrown her into a severe depression, and she began to take glass harmonica lessons and became obsessed with spirituality. Her husband decided that all this was bad, took away her music lessons, and exhibited a lot of controlling behavior. Sherlock follows Ann, sees her apparently indicating she plans to poison her husband, but realizes she actually intends to kill herself. He pretends to know how to read palms as a way to try to talk her out of this; she confronts him because she knows who he is and calls him out for trying to bullshit her. She tells Sherlock that he husband doesn’t understand the pain she feels, and she “wants to share her loneliness” with him, because he seems like he might understand. Sherlock shies away from this intimacy and tells Ann to go home to her husband “who loves you” (but plainly doesn’t understand her) and she bids him goodbye–then shortly after kills herself by stepping in front of a train.
So we have this heartbreaking plotline above. The reason Ann reaches out to Sherlock is because he tells her, “I’ve been alone all my life but for the conversations I’ve had.” I don’t even think she’s looking for some kind of sexual relationship, merely a conversation with someone who can understand her pain. And by denying her that, Sherlock feels responsible for her death. It’s that bad end to the case that gets him out of detective work and sends him to the country to keep his bees. He tells Roger at one point that he has so many regrets from his life, and this is no doubt one of them. But you’ll note it’s not a regret that’s caused by him lying to Ann. The moment that gives her hope is when he’s actually honest with her. What kicks her feet out from under her is when he tells her to go home to her husband, whom they both obviously know doesn’t, can’t, and probably won’t understand her. What kills Ann isn’t the truth. It’s a fiction Sherlock throws out offhandedly because he’s scared and Victorian.
Okay? Remember that. Sherlock is writing down Ann’s story because he wants to correct the record. He even tells Roger that he’s never had any use for fiction.
Another subplot of the film involves Sherlock’s keeping of bees, and teaching Roger to tend to them. There’s much made of the difference between bees and wasps. We learn early on that Roger isn’t allergic to being stung by bees. We also learn that a lot of the bees have been dying lately and they’re not sure of the cause. Late on in the movie, after Roger’s already had a lot of conflicts with his mum about his friendship with Sherlock, he’s discovered in anaphylactic shock, covered in bee stings. While Roger’s in the hospital, in a coma and hanging between life and death, Roger’s mum (Mrs. Munro, played by Laura Linney) returns to the house and is about to set fire to Sherlock’s hives when he realizes the truth: it’s not the bees that attacked Roger, but wasps from a nearby nest that were killing the bees. Roger tried to drown the wasps, and they swarmed him and stung him until he almost died. That truth saves the bees, and leads to Sherlock and Mrs. Munro burning the wasp nest together. Roger subsequently recovers, and Sherlock decides he will leave the boy his house and hives in his will.
Okay? The truth, once again, is the correct answer.
So then let’s examine the third plotline for this movie, which is sandwiched between the other two temporally. Sherlock goes to Japan in search of a plant called “prickly ash,” which takes him to Hiroshima. It’s one of the most haunting sequences of the film–and in that we see a grieving man mourning the dead by praying in a circle of stones. Sherlock was invited to the site by Umezaki Tamiki, who claims to know where to find the prickly ash in the nuclear wasteland. Umezaki acts a bit sketchy, and Sherlock realizes that he was invited out on false pretenses. It turns out that Umezaki’s father had gone to England and simply never returned, abandoning his family. The father’s last letter home to his wife claimed that he’d consulted with Sherlock on the matter and had to stay in England, so very sorry. Sherlock is understandably appalled by this, and says that he’d never even met the man.
Arguably, the above isn’t a pretty truth for Umezaki. But Sherlock has the choice between being frank–that he has no idea who the man is, where he went, or why he abandoned his family–and telling a fiction. Knowing what we do about Sherlock Holmes, the fact that he went with harsh truth should be no surprise. And Umezaki doesn’t seem to be the worse for it; he bids Sherlock goodbye and says that he won’t hear from him again, though he does contact him later to let him know that his mother has died.
Where the movie loses me is that it takes the three above plots, plus the development of the relationship between Roger and Sherlock, and comes to the conclusion that after looking his own mortality in the face and being afraid for Roger’s life, after remembering Ann’s suicide, that Sherlock decides lying to make people feel better is definitely a thing he should do. At the end of the film, he writes a letter to Umezaki that he explicitly states is fiction, telling Umezaki that oh, he does remember the man’s father, and he totally went to work for the British government as a spy. That’s why he never came home.
I am flummoxed by this. There is nothing in the plot line of Ann or the bees that drives this sudden change in character for Sherlock. Hell, there’s an absolutely wrenching scene a bit earlier in the film in which Roger argues with his mum in front of Sherlock and insults her for being uneducated. Sherlock immediately tells him to go apologize because what he said isn’t true, and he will regret it. And when you look at that in light of Ann’s death, knowing that Sherlock’s untrue words were what goaded her to suicide and knowing he regrets that completely, his advice to Roger deserves the desperate tone he uses to deliver it. The interwoven plots seems to have been building toward self-examination by a lonely, dying man, and the conclusion that even at the end of his life it isn’t too late for him to reach out to other people and connect to them, rather than remaining aloof while he drowns quietly in regret. His search for answers and truth doesn’t stand in the way of him forging a peace with Mrs. Munro and effectively adopting Roger; it’s the combination of truth and emotional connection that ultimately save them all.
In this light, his stated foray into fiction makes less and less sense. How does this lie help Sherlock or Umezaki? Umezaki’s suffering this entire time, his rather understated desire for revenge against Sherlock has nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with his dad being a lying piece of shit. So I could see Sherlock maybe writing the letter if he thought Umezaki was going to jump in front of a train, but there’s no indication of that in the film. It’s bizarre, and a conclusion that simply does not follow from every other plot point.
The letter to Umezaki is the only sour note in the film, but damn is it a loud, blatting, terrible one. If only that hadn’t happened, because otherwise the plot threads tie up so beautifully. The final image is Roger showing Mrs. Munro how to care for the bees, thus healing the rift in that little family and tying her just as much to Sherlock as he is, while in the background Sherlock bows over a circle of stones that represent his own regretted dead. It’s gorgeous.
But that letter. That goddamn letter. Argh.