He scorns the deerstalker, shuns the pipe and tuts his way through inaccurate cinematic depictions. 93 year old Sherlock Holmes is not a man at ease with the legend grown up around him. Frail of body and mind, he also desperately wants to resolve the case that decades ago ended his career. Bill Condon’s enjoyable adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind is light on heft and bogged down by narrative detours until the final third blossoms into the handsome musing on redemption and regret it aspires to be.
It helps that Ian McKellen is on hand to smooth the creakier joins in the screenplay. His curmudgeonly, scowling Holmes is a constant delight, channelling Gandalf at his squintiest. But McKellen has more than just a sour face and gruff insult to use. Living only with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) in the countryside, he’s wracked by the failure many moons before that put him out of detecting. Unable to recollect it, he’s desperately trying to jog his own memory in order to come to terms with whatever happened.
The mystery in question appears in a number of flashbacks. A troubled wife (Hattie Morahan) keeps disappearing with no obvious solution, worrying her anxious husband (Patrick Kennedy). The tiniest of reminders thrusts elderly Holmes back into his memories, his craggy face developing a hoary look as he gazes into the distance waiting for the flashback to play. The scenes in the past are typical plummy BBC drama and none the worse for it, each fragment smoothly shot and ending on a note just about stimulating enough to maintain interest.
Far less impressive is a superfluous journey to Japan to pick up a magical plant from Mr Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) that will improve his memory. There’s an ulterior motive at play here as well, and it’s incredibly stupid when finally revealed. Not only does it waste valuable screen time and sap energy from the central thread, it also leads to a terrible denouement that sees Holmes penning his first attempt at fiction.
Where the Japanese subplot fails, the bond between Holmes and Roger succeeds. This is Mr. Holmes at its best, allowing McKellen to mix grumpy and fatherly as he takes the boy under his wing, offering him access to his library and training him in his one remaining passion, beekeeping. There’s even a little space for some social commentary to creep in under the film’s formal attire. This comes in the shape of Mrs. Munro, her relationship with Roger who cruelly mocks her own learning at one stage, and observations on the social order that sees Holmes knocking around in a giant country house and Mrs. Munro cleaning up after him.
Nothing in Mr. Holmes is subtle, and very little is likely to remain beyond the closing credits. And yet it’s a pleasant ambling stroll with the great detective in his dotage that plays neatly with the mythology around the character. There are even a few heartstrings to be pulled as he finally understands the mistakes of years gone by. It won’t shake worlds but it might raise smiles.
Director: Bill Condon
Stars: Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Laura Linney
Country: UK, USA