Fans of Sherlock Holmes are likely to be wrong-footed by Bill Condon's new feature. This is a subtle and very moving film with an exceptional performance from its lead actor but one that bears little resemblance to the many other big- and small-screen yarns, even the more outlandish ones, featuring Baker Street's most famous resident.
First spotted on a train, Ian McKellen's 93-year-old Holmes looks nothing like the detective as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Basil Rathbone, Robert Stephens, Robert Downey Jnr, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, Clive Brook et al. He doesn't wear a deerstalker and prefers cigars to a pipe. His Holmes is a very ancient and very severe-looking man with wrinkled features and protuberant ears that make him look as frightening as any gargoyle.
The deductive reasoning powers are still intact but McKellen's sleuth is so forgetful that he has taken to writing down names on the sleeves of his shirt. His real enemy here isn't a criminal mastermind like Professor Moriarty, who doesn't feature at all, but regret and ageing – and whatever is causing his precious bees to die.
As the film begins, the detective is on his way home from Japan. He doesn't live in London any longer but has decamped to a pretty Sussex farmhouse not far from the sea.
Disconcertingly, we notice the wing of a downed Luftwaffe plane sticking out in a field. Holmes, we realise, is in 1940s, post-war, Attlee England, not in Victorian London. There are references to Hiroshima and nuclear wasteland, something never found in Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction. Dr Watson is long since dead. Holmes is a curmudgeonly old man, not much liked by his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and who exasperates his doctor (Roger Allam).
Holmes has been retired for 30 years but some of the old celebrity remains. People stare at him on railway platforms, surprised he is still alive. Holmes professes to be irritated by the many inaccuracies in Watson's "penny dreadful" style accounts of his cases but is also secretly flattered by the attention they bring him. In one scene, we see him watching a black-and-white Sherlock Holmes movie at the local cinema. Holmes is played in dashing but conventional matinee-idol fashion by Nicholas Rowe. (The casting itself is an in-joke; Rowe made his name playing the detective as a teenager in Barry Levinson's 1985 movie The Young Sherlock.)
Mr. Holmes, based on Mitch Cullin's novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, has a complex storyline, flitting between 1947 and a case from many years before that still torments Holmes. This was a humdrum affair by comparison with The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Sign of Four. It concerned a bereaved young woman (Hattie Morahan). Holmes had been hired by her husband to tail her and to work out why she was acting in such an erratic manner.
In order to crack the mystery, Holmes needs to go beyond logic. The woman's case comes with all the accoutrements of the typical potboiler detective story – forged cheques, dropped gloves, a not altogether trustworthy medium (Frances de la Tour), suspicions of infidelity and even a runaway train. However, it is not a matter of simply deducing the facts. Instead, he has to try to understand the emotions that pushed characters to behave in ways that seemed, at least at the time, utterly baffling. He is in search of the human factor – and that is what turns out to be far from elementary.
We are so used to McKellen on screen playing wizards and mutants in JRR Tolkien adaptations or Marvel blockbusters that it is easy to forget his consummate skills as a character actor. This is one of his richest and most affecting roles since he played the simple-minded hero in Stephen Frears' Walter in the early days of Channel 4. McKellen's Holmes is very precise in everything from the way he wears his clothes (the top hat and stick that make him look incongruously like Fred Astaire in the flashback sequences) to his handwriting. He doesn't try to be ingratiating and only very slowly becomes aware of how cruelly he may have behaved in the past. One of the tricks of the storyline is to show a man of formidable intelligence using that intelligence to cope with the dulling of his faculties. He can't avoid a sense of panic as his mind and body begin to fail him.
Holmes always needs an acolyte. In this case, rather than Dr Watson, he has the housekeeper's precocious young son Roger (played in appealing fashion by Milo Parker), who dotes on his stories and becomes his devoted assistant in the apiary. The sentimentality in the depiction of Holmes's relationship with Roger seems deliberate. Without the blossoming of this unlikely friendship, the film might have become very bleak indeed.
Laura Linney is good value as the bossy Mrs Munro, clucking and fussing around Holmes in the same way that his old landlady Mrs Hudson did in countless earlier movies. The difference is that Linney conveys her character's loneliness as a single mum, her devotion to her son and her bristling resentment of the hold Holmes has over him.
The real object of the detective's last case study is himself – and he doesn't always like what he uncovers.
In the summer of Jurassic World, Mr Holmes may struggle to make an impact at the box office (in spite of being produced by the team behind The King's Speech). It is about the wrong kind of dinosaur. This is an intimate study of an ancient detective confronting his own mortality. However, director Condon, best known for The Twilight Saga but who also worked with McKellen on Gods and Monsters, brings immense grace and humour to a film that benefits from its low-key but forensic approach.
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