Aug 12 2015

Mr. Holmes and the unreliable narrator in all of us


Mr. Holmes isn’t your typical summer movie. It’s a unique take on the character of Sherlock Holmes. Ian McKellen owned this role and was a joy to watch. In 1947 Sherlock Holmes is in his nineties, tended by a prickly cook (Laura Linney) and her perceptive young son. Holmes’ memory is fading and he’s trying to remember the particulars of a long ago mystery involving a glass harmonium. It was his last case. The case that caused him to retire. And now we cannot remember why.

Watson has died. Everyone associated with the case is gone. As Holmes tries to recount the case to the boy, it comes back in bits and pieces. Holmes has just returned from Japan where he’s gone to obtain some alternative herbs to help with the memory loss. His herbalist, another player whose part is uncertain.

Holmes’ medical doctor tries to get him to accept his condition and make care arrangements for himself. For someone for whom old age is a scant few decades away, parts of this film hurt to watch. In one scene Holmes’ doctor has him make a mark in his notebook every time he forgets something. Some pages are full. It’s devastating. Everyone who faces old age dreads this possibility.

Director Bill Condon keeps the pace slow and deliberate, yet the film moves as it switches between flashbacks to the younger Holmes working the 30-year-old case and the old recluse relating the tale to his young protégé Roger. When he feels up to it Holmes instructs Roger in his hobby, beekeeping, and in his trade, deductive reasoning. Roger helps Holmes sift through his letters and regrets.

The film made me think about the concept of the unreliable narrator. Holmes’ famed logic and attention to detail is now a jumbled mix of images and ideas. He is uncertain whether what he remembers is what actually happened. Filling in the gaps requires more induction than deduction. It turns out that Watson’s recounting of the tale takes extensive literary license, written for entertainment rather than accuracy. So Watson is also an unreliable narrator to Holmes’ life. Yet, given Holmes state of mind, we cannot be sure whether of Watson’s version is entirely wrong just because Holmes dismisses it.

All stories come down to the perceptions of those who tell them. Two people can witness the same event and tell very different stories. Perhaps we are all unreliable narrators relaying our stories as we remember the details, informed by our own perceptions and infused with the emotional tones we experienced at the time and how we feel about it now in retrospect. In the end it is the intentions of the storytellers and the need for reconciliation that reframes Holmes’ last case to help him find peace in the final chapter of his life.

God is the only one who knows our whole stories from beginning to end and what they mean. We live the stories we perceive, the ones others interpret based on their perceptions of the evidence, and the one that really is. It may only be on the other side that he know our own real stories and we may not even recognize some of the stories we’ve lived.