Reviewed by Andrew DeCort (PhD)
Mr. Holmes is a brilliant film, but the major reviews (e.g., in the Chicago Tribune and New York Times) have missed its insight.
Initially, I grew bored as I watched the film, seeing only an aging, increasingly senile Holmes’ struggle to stitch back together fragments of memory about a mystery that puzzled him: why had he left his work as a famous detective in London to move to the countryside by himself only to keep his bees? “It must have been something terrible,” he mutters with incomprehension.
Eventually, through good luck and relentless effort, Holmes (Ian McKellen) remembers. He had been working on a case in which a husband suspected his wife of unfaithfulness or even madness after her repeated miscarriages.
What Holmes remembered was revelatory. He had brilliantly cracked the case and pieced together all the details, as always. In a park, he approached the man’s wife and disclosed to her, through the guise of reading her palm as a stranger, that he had connected the dots: she had taken money in order to buy grave stones for her unborn children, and she planned to poison her husband for not understanding her motherly grief.
However, having washed her husband’s clothes and found Mr. Holmes’ card in his trouser pocket, she knows who Mr. Holmes is and that his palm reading was a ruse. She unveils him, and they sit and sift through what has happened.
This moment matters intensely and gets to the heart of this film.
Sherlock Holmes, with his razor-sharp logic and reasoning, penetrates to the core of his case and unravels his suspect’s intentions. And he catalogues this for her, as if he knows her better than she knows herself, like he has gotten inside her. When she obliquely asks Holmes to take her away to a safe place, Holmes knowingly looks (down) at her and tells her, “Go home. You have a husband who loves you.” She walks away, and Holmes quietly bathes in the glory of his own genius, as if by figuring out all the details and connecting all the dots, he has now fixed the woman’s life and demonstrated his own rational mastery over the mystery of being human. But he hasn’t.
What he does not know – the intention that he could not see – was that this woman was going to walk down a train track and commit suicide later that day. Holmes could see everything in the case; but he could not see her and her pain as he sat right beside her and looked into her face. The fragility of her despair after the death of her unborn children entirely eluded him. His mastery of the details had distracted him from their meaning. And this crushed him, and drove him to exile himself.
Holme’s reason and logic were inadequate, by themselves inhuman and cruel. He saw all of the evidence, but he couldn’t see the person. His self-satisfaction was really the most terrible kind of ignorance and a cowardice to look at what was really going on – a woman struggling not to give up on life in the midst of overwhelming grief who had asked him for help.
Mr. Holmes is a gentle but gripping study in the fallibility of a genius. And it is a subtle confession that the greatest failure in life is not technical in nature but human in nature, the failure to discern another person and their despair, to respond to another’s desperation, to extend a hand and embrace the other person rather than unraveling their case and telling them to return to their life unchanged and alone.
Brilliance without love is blindness.