This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.
Mr. Holmes, the movie about an aging Sherlock Holmes (played by Ian McKellen), was in theaters last summer, but I only saw it recently, on DVD. Holmes is in his 90s and has been living quietly in a country house for 30 years. With him are Mrs. Munro, a widowed housekeeper (Laura Linney), and her son Roger (Milo Parker), who is quite taken with the old detective. Holmes is plagued by memory difficulties. Whenever he forgets something, for example not recalling that he told Roger they were going swimming, he is visibly discouraged. He is fighting to remember day-to-day events, but even more is fighting to remember his last case. He muses “I need to finish with you before I die,” as if this is the final task he needs to accomplish before he is free to depart earth.
The case is important to him because he is convinced he must have made a terrible mistake; otherwise, he reasons, he wouldn’t have abruptly left London and retreated to the countryside. His former associate Watson wrote the case up in a way he knows must be inaccurate, and he wants to correct the error. It’s not so much concern about the public record, though. The only audience that needs an accurate account is him. He is in a sense interrogating himself, a detective trying to solve a mystery that lies within.
I think we all tend to return to certain crucial events in the past and try to remember exactly what happened. For me, the time from 1992-1994 when my marriage was ending is the time I go back to the most. I question myself, though not as intensely as Holmes did. I think about what happened, what choices on my part contributed to the breakup, and what if anything I could have done otherwise. What I think I am after–and what Holmes seems to be after–is self-knowledge.
We all observe ourselves, noticing what we do day-to-day, wondering why we were irritable with one person or avoided another. We are biased, excusing our worst moments, but once in a while we are able to lift the curtain of self-justification and see ourselves accurately. Sometimes, our self-serving bias fades with time, so looking back can give clearer vision than we had when events were freshly coined. For Holmes, whose logical rigor quickly shreds self-justification, vision is blocked by another curtain, the curtain of forgetting.
Little by little, Holmes remembers more of the case. He eventually recalls that he had had the opportunity to help a troubled woman but didn’t do so. He admits to Mrs. Munro, “I was fearful.” As much as it pains him to remember he had failed, he is to be admired for having pursued the truth so doggedly. It’s so easy to do the opposite; to deliberately not think about episodes that reflect badly on us until we’ve pushed them far away from consciousness. Most of us have a few regrets: always evading them leads to self-delusion, but habitually viewing them through a magnifying glass produces unnecessary misery. Maturity means looking at one’s shortcomings but not doing so too much.
The redemptive aspect of the film is that in the end Holmes shows kindness to others that he wasn’t capable of 30 years earlier. Even painful self-knowledge is useful when it goads us to choose differently the next time we are confronted with human need. Knowing our weaknesses often is good preparation for responding compassionately to those who are troubled.