Mr. Holmes: On the Cathartic and Corrupting Nature of Storytelling

What do you think of when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes? Is it the deerstalker cap? The curved pipe? Or is it a shit-eating Robert Downey Jr., performing martial arts like some sort of superheroic jackass? An image that probably isn’t evoked is the handsome albeit wizened mug of Sir Ian McKellen, who plays a 93-year-old Holmes facing mortality and a fading memory in last year’s drama Mr. Holmes. This characterization of the famous sleuth as a cantankerous old codger is a disconcerting one, but it is also deeply purposeful and powerful. Writer Jeffrey Hatcher and director Bill Condon, along with an impressive cast, utilize this premise to create a strong portrait of the complexity of storytelling, and how it both helps and harms our experience.

Ancient, grumpy and liver-spotted like a leopard, the Sherlock we meet in the introductory moments of Mr. Holmes is about as far away from Downey Jr.’s brawler or Benedict Cumberbatch’s tousle-haired sociopath as you can get. This Holmes is a retired detective, a withering prune of a man who lives in a remote Sussex farmhouse that is tended by Laura Linney’s Mrs. Munro and her small son Roger (Milo Parker).

This old fart is defined by a tumultuous relationship to fiction and storytelling.  A major theme of Mr. Holmes is the gumshoe’s distaste for the way he and his work has been characterized over the years by Dr. John Watson’s stories, which detail the cases they worked together. He rails against the “Holmes character,” growling that features like the hooked pipe and deerstalker hat are “vulgar,” and stating, “I was real once until John made me a character.”

This bitter and even hostile attitude towards fiction is unsurprising considering what has long been intrinsic to Sherlock Holmes. Like the detective says at one point in the movie, this is a man who “has no use for imagination.” He views himself as operating solely in accordance with “the facts” of reality.

Mr. Holmes does an excellent job analyzing how this is an erroneous perspective, and not just for the Holmes character. Indeed, the film’s supposition is that storytelling is not merely “flights of fancy” in which only segments of the population engage. Storytelling lays the groundwork for all understandings of reality. It is a process that is constant and universal. It is one of the primary tools for making life itself a bit more bearable.

The cathartic nature of storytelling is explored fully through the arc of Sherlock’s character. For much of the film’s run time, the man prides himself on being an ice-cold logician, who claims that the loneliness of his solitary life has been assuaged through the “compensations of the intellect.” It is only as the film approaches its conclusion that Holmes begins to shift into a storyteller himself and understand fiction’s considerable worth in the lives of human beings.

Like any old fogey, Holmes is prone to reminiscing ad nauseam. The film is very flashback heavy, with two sets of flashbacks running parallel to the film’s main plot. Still, these sequences both feel integral to the film as a whole, as they emphasize the fragility of Holmes’s memory and provide the necessary arena for this character arc – from logician to storyteller – to occur.

The Holmes we meet in Mr. Holmes is tormented by the past, specifically the mystery responsible for sending him into retirement. He can’t remember many of the case’s details, and although he has a written version of events (penned by Watson) he still feels that something is amiss. As the film progresses, we learn the truth of the case along with Holmes as the detective periodically recalls new memories.

The case in question occurred 30 years prior to the film’s main storyline. It involved a man named Thomas Kelmot enlisting the then-63 year old Holmes (McKellen brilliantly plays both ages) to track his wife Ann, who had been acting erratically since suffering two miscarriages. As Holmes begins to follow Ann in this flashback, it becomes clear that the woman is deeply and clinically depressed, and in fact is planning to commit suicide. When Holmes finally confronts her about her intentions and learns about the depths of her suffering, he is still unable to offer any words of support that might alleviate her pain.

This film’s commentary on this moment is pointed, direct, and perhaps even a tad on-the-nose. It is clear that Ann is looking to Holmes for salvation, words of hope that, although they may be little more than platitudes, may offer a kind of catharsis necessary that would allow her to get from one minute to the next. Holmes’s response amounts to essentially the opposite, a blunt reassertion of facts from which Ann can no longer derive any solace. Holmes simply states that she should return to the husband who loves her, essentially ignoring that she feels entirely isolated from her husband, someone who knows her so little “that he would need to employ a detective to uncover the truth.” Predictably, this story ends tragically. At some indefinite point following her conversation with Holmes, Ann walks in front of a train, killing herself instantly.

“Our time together was fleeting. Less than an hour really,” Holmes says later at her gravestone. “But her death made me see that human nature is a mystery that logic alone cannot illuminate.” As mentioned, this observation (conveyed through voice-over) is not really necessary; the film’s message about the usefulness of storytelling and the limitations of logic is already crystal-clear. It is also further articulated through the second set of flashbacks (which occur directly before the film’s main storyline), which depict Holmes traveling to Japan.

The purpose of the detective’s journey is to obtain a plant called “prickly ash,” believed to help cure those with ailing memories. In order to find the plant, Holmes enlists the help of Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), an admirer of the detective who with he had been corresponding. It is later revealed that Umezaki actually has no special knowledge of curative plants, only asserting that he did to get information from the detective regarding his father.

As it turns out, Umezaki’s father never returned to Japan after traveling to London many years ago, claiming that the reason behind his decision to stay in England was related to an inspiring meeting with Sherlock Holmes. Instead of responding with words of support, Holmes, in his devotion to pragmatic reasoning, bluntly calls out Umezaki’s father. The detective states flatly that he never knew him, before labeling him a coward who didn’t care about his family.

This exchange leaves Umezaki crushed and defeated. It is only later on, after Holmes has learned the value of storytelling and fabrication, that he writes Umezaki a letter and provides him with a fictional albeit cathartic story regarding his father’s fate. This completes Holmes’ arc from a fact-based detective to storyteller. It also underlines the mollifying and freeing effect that storytelling can have on the individual. It illuminates that fictionalizing events for someone in need (or even flat-out lying about an outcome) can be a great act of humanism.

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The cathartic, life-affirming and reality-creating benefits of storytelling are also embedded in how the film broaches the theme of class and the characters of Mrs. Munro and her son Roger. It is immediately evident that this small family is working class, and that their life prospects are modest at best. These circumstances, and the overall notion of class rigidity, is reflected (perhaps too blatantly) in the organizational structure of bees, which are a major component of the film, highly visible in an apiary on the grounds of the detective’s country estate. While tending the bees with Roger, Holmes outlines this organizational structure, stating, “The queen runs the colony. The drones service the queen. The workers do the work. As it should be.”

Perhaps on account of his youth, Roger seems unwilling to accept this. He is clearly inspired through his interactions with Holmes and begins to take on some of the detective’s attributes. By the film’s mid-point, it is indicated that Roger is harboring ambitions that clearly outstrip his mother’s occupation of a domestic servant. When it is revealed that his mother is intended to move them both to Portsmouth, UK to work in a hotel, Roger flies into a rage. He begins spitting and snarling like an angry puppy, and then reviles his mother’s position as a housekeeper and her general illiteracy in front of Holmes.

Roger’s outburst, which features him screaming in horror that his mother wants him to be a “boot black,” is understandable if somewhat petulant. It also indicates the dual nature of storytelling. While the process can have enormously cathartic benefits, it can also be a corrupting force, locking one into highly individualized and often highly negative perceptions of the world and those who populate it. For Roger, this involves the demonization of his mother, which he engages in for specific reasons. In order for him to believe that he is better than a working class existence, or that he is at least capable of more, he must find someone to which he can compare himself. As a grim and somewhat gloomy woman, who, by all accounts, seems to have fully and utterly accepted her lot in life, Mrs. Munro fills this role to the letter. She is someone who doesn’t try to dream, and has given up on telling herself stories about what life could be. She is, by her own admission, a person that has “never been very good at stories.”

The irony is that storytelling is not an intentional procedure, but an almost involuntary act and universal manifestation of human nature. Despite her claims of being a poor storyteller, Mrs. Munro is depicted as quite the prolific yarn-spinner. The only difference between her and Roger is the general focus of the storytelling. While Roger’s storytelling is aspirational, with an eye on what the future could be, Mrs. Munro’s storytelling is devoted to defining the present, creating a gritty tale of adversity in which she is the embattled protagonist.

Similar to Roger’s demonization of her, Holmes becomes the source of Munro’s storytelling ire over the course of the film. His multi-faceted essence is co-opted, distilled into a singular character: her antagonist and counterpoint. In one scene, occurring after the frail Holmes has taken a bad fall and become bedridden, Mrs. Munro comments that the detective is attempting to force them to stay in his employ. (This moment takes place after she has indicated her desire to move her and Roger to Portsmouth.) Roger also bellows during his outburst over the Portsmouth move that such statements from his mother are not brief or isolated; they are more akin to a constant stream, a never-ending tale of the country housekeeper and her inconsiderate, stupid, and heartless lummox of a boss.

The issues that Roger and Mrs. Munro are grappling with penetrate into something quite critical about the human condition. Their struggles reflect that, as humans, we live our lives through storytelling. And although there are biological truths and logical realities, theses things are subsidiary to our subjective and self-absorbed conception of reality. How else can you explain the fate that befalls Sherlock Holmes during Mr. Holmes? Despite being a paragon of logic and a master of pragmatic reason, it is revealed through the flashbacks that he was emotionally destroyed through his encounter with Ann Kelmont, traumatized over his inability or unwillingness to do more to save her from self-destruction.

What this particular understanding of reality ignores is obvious truths about the limitations of our influence and our power as individuals. In Holmes’s case, more than likely there was never anything he could have said or done to save Mrs. Munro, barring admitting her to a mental hospital against her will. Even equipped with his considerable intellect, Holmes was at the mercy of a misguidedly inflated sense of his own importance.

Condon hammers this point home aesthetically, depicting Ann Kelmont’s suicide through some of the storytelling methods human beings use to describe or understand reality. Holmes first hears of the suicide-by-train through reading his morning paper, which then immediately triggers his mental depiction of Ann walking into a train tunnel and being run over. These choices by Condon are not coincidental. They evoke how human beings cannot stop placing themselves at the center of their own personal story. The reality, of course, is that each person is no more important than any other, and often, if not always, events occur through a myriad of different forces.

Holmes cannot grapple fully with his notion. In his mental picture of Ann’s suicide, the woman appears to be even wearing the same outfit that she was when she spoke to Holmes earlier and he failed to provide her with comfort and support. This suggests that in Holmes’ mind his brief interaction with Ann was the deciding factor in her suicide; his inability to provide her with comfort in effect sealed her fate.

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Taken together with other examples of storytelling found in Mr. Holmes, Condon and company successfully and quite beautifully explore both the catharsis and the corruption that can be brought about through storytelling. For human beings, storytelling is an unavoidable, ineluctable method of interpreting and creating reality. It can bring about a level of peace and serenity that no fact, figure, or use of logic can hope to match. It can allow one to interpret the bleakness of the present as little more than a speed-bump on the road to a better future.

Conversely, it can capitalize on the inherent self-absorption of the human being, the unwieldy and seemingly unending egotism that defines how we view the world and, more importantly, how we view ourselves. This can lead unfortunately to the demonization of others, a natural step when one’s instinct is to perpetually view themselves as an embattled protagonist. And, ultimately, this can allow one to detrimentally inflate their own importance, and begin interpreting their personal actions as having a direct, causal relationship to the behaviors and lives of others. In short, the powerful contradictions of storytelling come alive in Mr. Holmes. The film offers no real prescription for better managing this dual nature. Still, it complexly parses how storytelling can take us to our highest highs or sink us to our lowest lows, and how it can simultaneously inspire us to be the best and worst versions of ourselves.

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