Impermanence, compassion, and Mr. Holmes

Last night we saw a wonderful movie, Mr. Holmes, with Ian McKellen and Laura Linney. The setting is rural England shortly after World War II. The elderly Holmes has retired from detective work and the burden of celebrity more than forty years earlier.

He lives with a housekeeper and her twelve year old son on the verge of adolescent arrogance. As his memory fails, accompanied by a series of small strokes, Mr. Holmes makes an effort to correctly recall his last case and why it led to withdrawal from his work, as well as a total estrangement from Watson.

Throughout the film in a variety of situations, Holmes continues to insist as he has in his career on the importance of facts and dismisses the relevance of emotion. He has sought a number of cures for his senility–ranging from cocaine to the keeping of bees for royal jelly to a visit to ground zero of a devastated Hiroshima in search of a particular medicinal plant.

Paradoxically, through his growing attachment to the boy with whom he reluctantly begins to share his apiary knowledge, Holmes gradually remembers. He contributed to the avoidable death of a young woman by failing to provide her with comforting lies rather than lay out her case in full harsh clarity. Previously so dismissive of Watson’s fictions, Holmes begins to see the pleasure and comfort they gave to so many in a terrifying and irrational world.

As Holmes physically and mentally weakens, aided by the dissolving comfort of the sea, shame and guilt press upon him. Through his increasing affection for the boy, he realizes the knowledge and reality of impermanence must be supported by the grace of compassion. Holmes acknowledges the lack of warmth and relationship in his life. Fortunately, his opening to feeling does not come too late. It is a profound, shall I say Buddhist, or simply human film.

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