I saw a movie over the weekend. Normally an unremarkable enough feat, but I haven’t been to many lately. This year’s blockbuster season hasn’t set my blood on fire. In fact, the movie I saw wasn’t a blockbuster. It was Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen as an old Sherlock Holmes, looking back on his final case.
The movie wasn’t what I expected at all. From the single commercial, I was expecting an active Holmes in his sixties solving one last crime. We do see some of that, but it’s not the main thrust of the film.
Instead, the main story itself is about a Holmes who is past ninety, with all that entails. And I do mean all. McKellen does a brilliant job of portraying a man nearing both the century mark and death. I was blown away by his performance, and my wife – a hospice nurse who has seen her share of patients of that age and stage – was truly amazed at how completely he embodied it.
I won’t spoil the movie for you. I will only say that it moves back and forth from the present to the past, dealing with both what he thinks of as his final case and what might actually be the final mysteries he solves.
More important than the plot of this movie – at least to me as I write this – is that this is the story of a man at the end of life. Not a man dying too young from some sudden disease. Not the violent death of a vibrant man. In fact, his death is not the story. (Remember, I am specifically not saying whether or not he lives through the movie. Go see it.)
Holmes is simply the main character we follow through this movie, and he happens to be aged and limited in the resources that most of us take for granted. He is contrasted with both his past self and the two other primary characters of his story, his housekeeper and her son.
It got me thinking. I couldn’t remember the last story I saw/heard/read that featured a main character so old. Minor characters, certainly, especially if that character will die in the course of the story. Further, I can’t help but note how little advertising the movie got. How small a release it is, compared to the blockbusters.
Age and death are subjects we don’t consider much in our society. Children are sheltered from it, and as adults we don’t speak of it much apart from imparting basic information and the societally prescribed responses.
“Excuse my tears/distant behavior. My parental unit has died.”
“I feel appropriate sorrow for your loss, given that I don’t share it.”
(Okay, that was flippant, but it feels that way sometimes.)
People often lament our American culture of youth, but they usually do so in the context that it seems those of middle-age are considered less attractive as mates and less desirable in the job market.
But our stories still feature vibrant, powerful characters in their middle ages and early old ages. They are not as often main characters as the young, but they still play prominent roles.
But the truly aged? They tend to exist as plot points. The nobles position themselves to vie for power when the bed-ridden old king passes. The main character must stay home and tend his aging grandparent instead of going off with the other youths (usually with the grandparent dying at last).
Nothing I say here is going to change anything. I know that. Heck, I’ve got dozens of stories waiting for me to write them, and none of them feature aged main characters. So I guess that makes me part of the problem. But I do think it’s something we should all think about. Maybe even talk about.
If we start doing these things, maybe over time it will change.
Then again, main characters near the end of life may never become popular. Mr. Holmes was based on a novel, and though I loved the movie, I don’t know if I could read the novel. The movie was hard to watch in places. I can only imagine how much harder I might find being inside the character’s head as I read the novel.
I just don’t know. But if you haven’t seen the movie, I hope you do.
And if you made it to the end of this, I’d love to know what you think.
Wow, I haven’t been blogging much lately, have I? Honestly, it’s because most of my blogging bandwidth has gone into my weekly fiction list. Each week I include something behind the scenes in addition to a chapter in a novella. If you want to read more regular stuff from me, you might want to check it out there at the top of the right-hand column.