In a summer dominated, as usual, by the return of superheroes bursting onto the screen in all their 3D glory, a quieter, more cerebral superhero has also graced the cinema. Mr. Holmes follows the fabled Sherlock (Ian McKellen), now 93 years old, to his retirement cottage by the sea, where he cares for a hive of bees and is cared for by a housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), who idolizes the famed detective. I use the word “graced” deliberately, for this is a graceful, elegant story beautifully filmed by Tobias A. Schliessler and worthy of honoring the supersleuth’s memory.
I use the word “memory” deliberately as well, because this is a story that focuses on the failing memory of a man known almost entirely for his mental prowess. Holmes approaches the onset of Alzheimer’s the way an athlete might approach the loss of his physical ability — with determination to maintain his skills and delay the inevitable decline. He methodically keeps track of his memory lapses and open-mindedly searches for cures, traveling as far as Japan for an herb he thinks will help. He is also hounded by the memory of his final case, one that involved a man and his wife — a case that Holmes is certain did not end the way his sidekick, Dr. Watson, recorded it. Holmesstruggles not only to remember how it concluded but also why it is so important to him. Roger becomes his new sidekick, helping with the bees and watching for evidence of his hero’s former greatness.
The bees provide a background to the story proceeding in the forefront. Holmes talks to Roger frequently about the bees — about the drones and the workers and the queen they protect. But ultimately it is the keeping that matters. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked God when confronted with the mystery ofhis brother Abel’s whereabouts. Are we responsible for the choices others make, when those choices are driven by choices of our own? In this film, the answer seems to be yes — agonizingly, exquisitely, and elegantly yes.