Monday, January 11, 2016

Masculinity Monday: 'Mr. Holmes' and the Legacy You Leave

This morning we talked about one particular Sherlock Holmes adaptation that tried to tell a non-linear narrative exploring the unreliable mind of Sherlock Holmes himself - BBC Sherlock's "The Abominable Bride" - so this afternoon we're going to look at another story that does just that same thing, but does it way better.

Like, oh my gosh so much better.

Along the way, though, this film manages to examine not just non-linear narrative structure, but also what it means to be a man at the end of his life. It's a surprisingly nuanced and sensitive portrait of Sherlock Holmes as he dwindles down to the end and finally confronts his own inevitable mortality. It's about figuring out what kind of legacy you want to leave the world, what kind of man you want to be remembered as, and about reckoning with death. It's very good.

The film in question is Mr. Holmes, the 2015 indie starring Sir Ian McKellan as the titular figure. McKellan plays a Holmes very different from what we're used to, in a time that we're not used to seeing. In this story, Mr. Holmes is a very old man - in his nineties - and is living out his dotage in a quaint little farm in the country in the early 1950s.* He's very alone, having only his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) for company. Everyone else he knew is dead.

Well, almost everyone. There are a couple of things going on in this story, and none of them are quite what they seem on the surface. Essentially, there are three different plotlines. I'll explain them in order of importance. First, the elderly Mr. Holmes finds a kindred spirit in Roger, who is a bright kid endlessly fascinated by Holmes' stories. Mrs. Munro is less than thrilled that her son is hanging on Holmes' every word, and this causes a lot of tension in the house. Roger views Mr. Holmes as the kind of man he'd like to be someday, a brilliant, honest, important man. Holmes, on the other hand, isn't so sure that Roger ought to emulate him, but he really enjoys Roger's intelligence and company. It's a thorny situation.

Spouting off of that is the second major storyline: Roger constantly asks Mr. Holmes for stories about his cases, and one in particular has him fascinated. Holmes has started to write down his own account of one of his adventures because he insists that the version Watson published was inaccurate. The only problem? He can't remember what really happened. The case, which involved a woman who believed she could hear her dead children speaking to her from beyond the veil, has haunted Holmes for years, but he has no recollection of why. He's very old now and his memory has faded a lot. He's even started taking supplements to keep it going, which brings us to our third story.

Just prior to the main story, Holmes came back from a trip to Japan to track down some "prickly ash", supposedly a plant that has amazing restorative powers for the memory. His guide in finding it, one Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), claims to be a huge fan of his work. This is not actually true. Instead, we find that Umezaki has lured Holmes to Japan to make him answer the great mystery of his life: why Sherlock Holmes told Mr. Umezaki's father never to return home.

There are a lot of themes going on here, linking these storylines together, even if it doesn't seem like it at first. Mainly, Mr. Holmes is about aging and death and the legacies we leave behind, but it's also about fathers and sons and about paying attention to what people actually mean, not just what they say. The core of the story is a question: Is telling the truth always the most important thing to do?

I'll go a little more in depth on the two flashback storylines and hopefully this will make more sense.

So the first flashback series is about Holmes trying desperately to remember this case from thirty years ago. His failure to solve it or just his dissatisfaction with the solution is the entire reason he isolated himself in the country and has refused to take any more cases since. It's a big deal. He remembers it in fits and starts, but this is how it shakes down in the end:

His client is Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) whose wife has recently begun acting very strange. For a few years he and his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan) had been trying to have children, but Ann's two pregnancies both ended in stillbirths. She was understandably distraught, but more concerning, insisted on acting as though her children had been born and could speak to her. Thomas tried to bring her out of it by finding something for her to do - lessons in how to play the harmonium - but this only made things worse. Ann became obsessed with harmonium lessons, and when she started taking them five times a week, Thomas had an intervention and stopped her going there too.

Only now she keeps disappearing and being super weird and he thinks she's been going back for more lessons but he can't prove it. All he knows is that he wants his wife back and he thinks her harmonium teacher has done something to her mind.

So Sherlock Holmes takes the case, following Ann to figure out what she really does all day. The answer is pretty damning: it looks like she's going to murder her husband. On the day he follows her, he finds her buying something sketchy from a man at a trainstation, purchasing a ticket for somewhere far away, withdrawing all of her husband's money from the bank, and generally being super creepy.

Holmes isn't fooled, though. He confronts Ann in a garden and reveals the truth: she's not getting ready to kill her husband. She's getting ready to kill herself. She's making it look like she wants to kill Thomas so that no one will stop her from hurting herself, but actually the poison she bought is for her. She so desperately wants to be with her children, she even bought them a headstone with room for her own name. Holmes tells her what he knows of the truth and she confirms it. She begs him to understand, even offers to run away with him. He's tempted, but in the end he refuses, tells her to go back to her husband. She smiles, and he thinks that's the end of it.

Hours later he discovers that she threw herself in front of a train directly after their conversation.

Holmes slow recovery of this memory is painful, not just because the memory itself is so jagged and broken, but also because it reveals the flaw in Holmes entire view of the world. He thought that exposing the truth and saying what he knows would fix everything, but it couldn't save her. It's the case that showed Holmes how very little he actually understood about people, and he felt he should never use his powers of observation again if he couldn't even see that a woman with a broken heart wouldn't be healed just because he knew about it.

The other flashback story, that of his times with Mr. Umezaki in Japan, is similarly unresolved. He went to Japan on the understanding that Umezaki was a genuine apiculturist and was actually interested in the prickly ash but quickly realized that Umezaki actually just wanted something else from him. And it's true, he did. See, Umezaki has blamed Sherlock Holmes for years because when he was a child he received a letter from his father saying that while he was away in London he ran into the great Sherlock Holmes who told him not to come back to Japan because he was doing spy work for the United Kingdom. Umezaki is furious that Holmes would tell his father not to come home.

Holmes, of course, immediately sets him right. There was no such conversation - Umezaki's father clearly made it up to soften the blow of the fact that he was abandoning his family. In other words, once again Sherlock Holmes tells the brutal truth and assumes this will make everything okay. It doesn't. Umezaki doesn't feel any better knowing that his father just abandoned them and made up a story about it, and Holmes is confused on why he doesn't feel more relieved for having told the truth.

Okay, now back to the main plot. In the bulk of the story, we're basically watching Sherlock Holmes deteriorate and die. If that sounds depressing, well, it kind of is. He's very old, especially for the time period, and his mind is failing. He's forgetful, weak, and frequently falls while trying to do simple tasks. Roger is willing to look past all of this, but Mrs. Munro, who has no desire to spend years of her life nursing a miserable old man who treats her like crap, isn't. She starts looking very seriously for other work, much to Roger's anger and frustration.

Roger, whose father died in the war, looks up to Holmes as a sort of grandfatherly figure and is more than happy to lionize him and think he's so much better than Roger's stupid mum. Roger is, as it happens, a genius, while Mrs. Munro really isn't. Even worse, she knows she's not. She knows that Roger is much cleverer than she is and that he disdains her for it. It's down-right painful to watch.

This is where the stories converge. See, in recollecting about the case that brought him down and thinking about Mr. Umezaki, Holmes is forced to confront his own legacy, and it's not pretty. He realizes that Roger is in fact imitating him. He's always insisted that the truth should be sufficient, so to Roger's view, the true fact that's he smarter than his mom should be sufficient information. That's just true, it shouldn't need anything else. The truth is all that matters.

When Holmes realizes that this is basically his legacy, that he has shown a young man the facts but none of the nuance of life, he's quite sad. And then some super dramatic stuff happens that I won't spoil you on, but that finally brings Holmes, Mrs. Munro, and Roger together for good. Mostly, though, the movie is about Sherlock Holmes looking back on his life and figuring out how he wants to be remembered. 

Mrs. Munro stands in for all the people Holmes disdained because they couldn't understand or appreciate his brilliance, and Roger stands in for his younger self. By seeing the two of them interact, he realizes that just because Mrs. Munro isn't clever or quick doesn't mean she lacks value as a person. Similarly, just because Roger reminds him of himself doesn't mean that he can't be encouraged to avoid the same pitfalls that have left Holmes a bitter old man dying on his own.

I chose this film for Masculinity Monday because I think that our society really forgets about old people a lot of the time. Not just that, though, but we really don't talk about old men. Part of the gendered double standard that faces men and women is that men are allowed to be sexy and refined well into old age (just look at how people talk about Sean Connery), while women aren't allowed to age past thirty-seven (just look at how people talk about Carrie Fisher). The interesting side to this is that we don't ever end up talking about how masculinity interacts with actual aging, because we sort of pretend that men don't age either.

I mean, while we show older male actors in roles where they're still sexy and cool and active, we rarely show them as old men who fall down if they try to reach something on a high shelf. We don't see many men playing older men dealing with their own mortality. We see so little about men and aging because we pretend that all older men are still studs who've "got it". Which really isn't true.

Seeing a visibly old Sherlock Holmes grappling with his life as he stares death in the face is hard to watch if only because we're so unused to it. And that's why it's important.

Masculinity is more than still being able to fire a gun when you're in your seventies, no matter what the RED franchise tells you. It's looking back on your life and owning your mistakes. It's striving for a better world even if you won't be around to see it. True, responsible, healthy masculinity means accepting the reality of your own death and living anyways. Not in denial or anger or bitterness, but with an open heart and acceptance. 

Mr. Holmes is a very good movie, but it's also a good reminder that we need to tell this story more often. We need to remember that age isn't the enemy. We shouldn't be afraid of getting old or glorify dying young. We should live our lives in such a way that the end, when it comes, fills us not with regrets but with the assurance we did what we came to do.

At the very end of the film, Holmes makes a choice that is both a new leaf for him and also objectively funny. He chooses to write to Mr. Umezaki and tell him a story. He says that, sorry, he was mistaken when he said Mr. Umezaki's father was lying. He's just remembered the truth. He really did tell the man not to go back to Japan because he was doing important work for the British Empire. Honest. 

He writes the letter because Holmes has decided that the truth really didn't do anyone any good here. The factual accuracy wasn't as important as emotional connection: he wanted to give Mr. Umezaki peace of mind and to comfort him. That's how he's decided he wants to be remembered.

And Laura Linney will quietly break your heart in this movie.
*I've been doing a lot of period pieces these past couple of days, and you're right. That is unlike me. I blame my parents.


  1. It's the case that showed Holmes how very little he actually understood about people, and he felt he should never use his powers of observation again if he couldn't even see that a woman with a broken heart wouldn't be healed just because he knew about it.

    This part of the story jarred for me, because the emotional core of the main arc is watching Holmes' capacities fail. Not just his memory, but his abilities with observation and logic are failing too. That's not well served by a past story that essentially paints those things as pointless, or even worse than useless (I don't object to such an idea in principle, but if one arc is about his abilities fading, the other arc should champion them, not denigrate them).

    [Besides, the original Holmes had little difficulty interacting with people, and was convinced that what he did was a skill anyone could potentially learn, and I'd like to for once see an adaptation that went back to that.
    [Like, say, Watson had attributed the solving of the mystery to Holmes because that's where the stories profited, but it was actually someone else who'd understood Holmes's explanations of his methods, and taken them on board, and the future Holmes can take comfort in the thought that what he invented will go on through others.
    [Or even, that other person understood people better than Holmes, and that provided a clue Holmes missed, and the future story's Holmes is comforted that what he invented will go on *and be improved on* by others - in parallel to Roger finding the wasps]

    1. That is a very good point. I hadn't thought about that. I think there was a way to make this still emotionally affecting - the realization that his faculties are failing concurrent with the remembrance that they aren't worth putting his stock in as a person - but the movie didn't dig deep enough.

      I do think it's a very interesting modern interpretation of the character, this whole "what are people and feelings ew" thing. Because I read the Sherlock Holmes stories incessantly as a kid and that's just not a big part of them. Holmes isn't exactly effusive, but no one is in those stories. It's a really weird commentary on us, that we like that idea so much.

      Yes! I do think filmmakers would do well to remember how Holmes really doesn't have much of an ego in the stories. He just thinks people ought to be trained in their methods, not that he's the only one ever who can do it. Mostly I blame BBC Sherlock for this.

    2. I think BBC Sherlock is a symtom rather than a cause, but it's a *big* symptom. As well as of the Holmes doesn't care about people/justice, only the abstract intellectual problem.

      (It was something that made me like Elementary, the idea that Holmes would much rather be wrong of being right meant an innocent person was dead).

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