Mr. Holmes, Observed
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the detective Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as a cold, logical master of both observation and disguise. He is thus an observer who also evades observation. In this short story, he aims to make the actress Irene Adler reveal where she has hidden a damaging photograph. But in the act of revealing this, she realizes who he is, and she counters with an escape engineered partly by her own disguise. Holmes thus uncharacteristically fails to reach his goal, and his admiration for her skill is shown by the fact that the normally unsentimental Holmes keeps a photograph of her. Interestingly, however, the illustrations in the Strand Magazine never show us the face of this reported beauty–the only picture of Irene Adler veils the face, suggesting that even in a story emphasizing the visual, the illustrator apparently decided to let the reader’s imagination supply her image.
The recently released film Mr. Holmes shows an aging Holmes in 1947, reflecting on a past failure–in this case he had unsentimentally suggested that a depressed young woman who had lost two children return to her husband, rather than offer her comfort. She surprised him by committing suicide shortly afterwards.
He then thinks about his last case, when he went to Japan to visit a man who informed Holmes that his father abandoned the family at Holmes’s request. Holmes insisted that he had never met this father, and the family was devastated. As the film progresses, and the son of his housekeeper (who had been helping him keep his bees) is badly stung by wasps, Holmes realizes that sometimes empathy must trump cold facts, and he confronts his earlier failures.
The film, of course, modernizes Holmes by giving him a heart, but in a sense, it does more than that. The Victorian Holmes acts as an observer of others, who often avoids being observed. But in Mr. Holmes, the great detective finally turns his observational skills upon himself. This is troubling for him at first, but despite his faulty memory, he finds a way to make reparations and find peace. He writes to the man he visited, and alters the facts–he says he now remembers the father, and indeed this man had performed important work which should be commemorated.
This portrayal raises the question of whether compassion and introspection can co-exist with Holmes’ methods of deduction and observation, or if one is as fatal to the other as the wasps are to the bees. In the original stories, and many other adaptations, his aloofness is made a vital part of his talent. Even in this film, his talent in actually solving cases was at its best when he was less sentimental. It is a talent for resolving problems that seems to have been lacking earlier in his career.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Strand Magazine. January 27, 2006. http://sherlockholmes.stanford.edu/pdf/holmes_01.pdf
Mr. Holmes. Dir. Bill Condon. BBC Films, 2015. Film.