As a child, I often read Classic Comics, which presented classic novels in cartoons. I remember reading one of the Sherlock Holmes novels in this format and being fascinated by Holmes’s ability to focus on the details of a case and ignoring extraneous details.
One particular interchange between him and his friend Watson surprised me and I still recall it many years later. The conversation revealed that Holmes did not know that the earth revolved around the sun. Although it was a common fact known to everybody in his day and age, for Holmes the fact was irrelevant. I thought it was cool that such a brilliant detective could be so ignorant about general knowledge, and only remember information that was germane to the case he was working on, nothing else.
Mr. Holmes, a fascinating look at Sherlock Holmes during his senior years, hinges on Holmes’ ability to remember things, not an easy task for him at 93 years old. The story begins in 1947 when Holmes is living in a Sussex farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger with whom he forms a fatherly friendship. Roger is both inquisitive and intelligent and Holmes senses in him a kindred spirit.
The film opens as Holmes returns from a trip to Japan. He has difficulty remembering the details of the case he went there to solve. Gradually, however, through his discussions with Roger who stimulates his thinking, Holmes begins to recalls details of the case in Japan as well as a case that occurred thirty years earlier that involved a woman who committed suicide.
In the present, Holmes’ health deteriorates and Mrs. Munro finds taking care of him more onerous. She also does not like the intense friendship that her son, Roger, has developed for him, a friendship that alienates Roger from her, nurturing in him an independent and at times condescending spirit. Tension develops between mother and son until a crisis changes things for Holmes, Mrs. Munro, and her son.
The cultivation of memory, which has been a focus of Holmes’ entire professional life, is important in Jewish law and tradition. It is critical in the way we observe our holy days, which require us not only to remember the past but to relive it. For example, we do not just remember the Exodus from Egypt, but we eat the bread of affliction, the matzah, and the bitter herbs. We also experience the transition to freedom by drinking four cups of wine and reclining on cushions at certain points in the Passover seder, the archetypal meal of the holiday.
Moreover, on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, a commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, we do not just recall the catastrophe. On that day, we fast and sit on low stools, and lament as if the tragedy were only yesterday. On the festival of Tabernacles, which commemorates the journey in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land, we move into fragile huts covered with greenery to re-experience a time when we felt totally dependent on God’s kindness and protection.
The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, states that we should make an effort to retain what we have learned in the past. We are required not to forget, to keep our memories alive and relevant to the present.
Mr. Holmes depicts a man trying to retain his memory, for the past animates his present. He desires to remember the old cases, many of which taught him valuable life lessons. He is not just remembering because he wants to preserve information; he is remembering because through memory he can recreate his past life and transmit some of the wisdom he has gleaned to future generations. For him and for all men, memory links the generations.