Critics love to point to the film industry’s love affair with remakes, reboots, and sequels to demonstrate how awful today’s movies are. They’re not entirely wrong; take a look at our reviews of Terminator Genisysand Pitch Perfect 2, for example.
Mr. Holmes isn’t a remake, per se, but it is the latest in the record-holding line of cinematic adaptations. At 254 appearances as of 2012, Sherlock Holmes is the most-portrayed onscreen character of all time. After that many iterations, becoming formulaic isn’t just a concern, it’s pretty much expected.
So what then is the point of another Sherlock Holmes movie? Haven’t we seen everything that can be done to this story, from superfluous steampunk fanservice—yes, I went there, A Game of Shadows—to almost forcibly relevant modernizations? (I feel obligated to note, however, that both the BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary are fantastic and you should watch them.)
The answer is yes, we probably have seen every version of Sherlock Holmes we can. And we’ll undoubtedly see more, because ultimately the point of yet another Sherlock Holmes movie is to prove how much audiences can still love a good character paired with a good story. We don’t have to abandon all hope for remake movies yet.
Director Bill Condon does an excellent job balancing the familiar with the intriguing in Mr. Holmes. Ian McKellen plays Sherlock to perfection as exactly the type of old man we’d expect the detective to become: quick-witted, a bit cantankerous, slightly sentimental, and just as sharp as ever. He’s grown domesticated over his thirty years of retirement, spending his final years in the countryside, investigating the mysterious deaths of bees, and researching exotic herbal medicines.
Even the original elements of this story hail back to canonical inspirations. No Holmes story is complete without the detective’s home team: the long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Hudson is replaced by an equally beleaguered Mrs. Munro, played with excellent and endearing nuance by Laura Linney. Mrs. Munro’s young son Roger (Milo Parker) fills in as a juvenile John Watson, tramping after Sherlock to learn beekeeping and the science of deduction as he helps the detective solve his final case.
In a fun meta moment, Sherlock goes to see a film version of one of Watson’s stories of their adventures. The story doesn’t sit right in his mind; he knows this was the case that brought him to retire in despair 30 years prior, but in his old age he’s forgotten the reasons why. He can’t bear the tormenting sense that he left a case unsolved and some evil unvanquished. He tasks himself the challenge of piecing together the case with only faded evidence and a silly fiction to help him.
The truth is his goal, as always, and in this case the truth for him means removing the fiction from Watson’s story as much as it means recovering his memory. “Fiction is worthless,” he huffs to Roger early in the film as he denounces the many ideas published about him. He declares, “I’ve never had much use for imagination,” and that, “Logic is rare, so I dwell on logic,” a thoroughly Holmesian stance. Correcting this last case presents Sherlock with the opportunity to leave behind something really true instead of what to him are only so many falsehoods about his life.
Sherlock’s fears about his mortality are aggravated by his cynicism towards his fictional legacy. He doesn’t want his last case to be just one more silly Adventure of Sherlock Holmes. For viewers, his desperation to resurrect the truth from his own failing mind before it’s too late doesn’t make Mr. Holmes just one more silly Adventure either. These stakes may be lower than in other Holmes movies, but the contrast only seems to make them matter more. Though we never really believe that he won’t succeed - he’s Sherlock Holmes, for goodness’ sake - it’s obvious that his success or failure isn’t the point of the film. The question isn’t, “Will he?” but “How will he, and why will it matter?”
The “How,” without being too spoiler-y, is through a story. The motif of writing and fiction crop up frequently in the film, particularly between Sherlock and his young Watson stand-in, Roger. Sherlock sorts through his memories by writing them down Watson-style, and Roger eagerly awaits each new installment. Sherlock even eventually gives in to the classic creative conceits of his own stories, enjoying Roger’s excitement.
It’s a clear parallel to the relationship between Condon, and on a broader scale all Holmes storytellers, and their audiences. Sherlock slowly loses his cynicism for fiction when he sees how it can be used to inspire and comfort the people around him. As a film, Mr. Holmes posits that the repetition of favorite stories isn’t inherently a bad thing for storytelling. There’s a reason, after all, why this character and this style of narrative have been retold 254 times.
Maybe it’s a slightly lame conclusion for the film to make, that good stories are always worth retelling. But the skill with which Condon tells his story—the perfect combination of classic and new, the stellar acting, the beautiful cinematography—drives the point home in spite of any complaints against nostalgia. It’s worth seeing if you enjoy understated, well-crafted films, love Sherlock Holmes, or just want to have hope for remake movies again.
A primary plotline centers around Sherlock’s pursuit of a drug that he hopes will sharpen his memory, an understated reference to the character’s drug abuse in the original stories. In one scene, Sherlock does prepare a drug and needle for injection and though he isn’t shown using it, he is next shown unconscious from some kind of overdose. Sherlock takes a trip to Japan and visits recently post-WWII Hiroshima. He sees a woman whose face is badly disfigured by burns from the bombing. We see a character commit suicide by walking in front of a speeding train. A character is attacked by insects and is shown badly stung and in a coma. Another recurring theme references Sherlock’s canonical interest in supernaturalism; there are several mentions of ghosts and communicating with the dead, and the film ends with a character making prayer-like gestures that have a more occult than Christian feel to them.
Jessica Gibson is a writer and a student at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets only to fangirl and gripe @GibbyTOD.