The year is 1947 and the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has been retired for over thirty years, now in his 93rd year and keeping bees in Sussex, where he lives in the countryside by the coast with just a housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) for company. He has recently been to Japan to see Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) on a private matter, which also had a connection to his apiary, but now he is back his doctor (Roger Allam) is growing concerned the old man may be losing his faculties, and Holmes is worried about that as well. One thing especially is bothering him, his final case which caused him to give up the life of a sleuth, if only he could remember it…
Director Bill Condon reunited with his Gods and Monsters star Ian McKellen for this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel, which posited what the famed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character would have got up to in his twilight years, but not everyone was happy with what he concocted. It was always a problem with a property which had been so vivid on the page, Doyle’s expertise with his conceptions creating such a memorable personality that what seemed easy to recreate for further stories by other hands, and in other media, were not necessarily going to please even the casual consumer, never mind the Holmes purists. While his novel A Slight Trick of the Mind was by no means outrageous in its treatment, the film version nevertheless had issues.
The main one being that the only way we knew this was supposed to be Sherlock Holmes we were watching was that we were told it was so, which means the film could get away with a lot of embellishment and invention in the service of what was a very low key story, to the point of boredom. There was something undeniably televisual about the experience of watching Mr Holmes, as if its true place was a Sunday night slot for the audience to unwind to, nothing too taxing, just mildly engaging, as if this was Inspector Morse or something, though perhaps aptly the BBC, who part-produced this, had also been making a worldwide TV sensation based on the Doyle stories around the same time.
There was nothing so clever here than there was there, no matter that McKellen was putting in a sterling performance of a man losing his memories thanks to old age, as if he was Superman reacting to the kryptonite that was the passing of time. Though this was not really a detective yarn, that final case has been preying on his mind, if only he could recall what it was he could find the key to why he gave up his investigating and shut himself off from the world, though it was fair to say the solution for that, when it arrived, was less than convincing, particularly if you were familiar with the Holmes from the books, it just didn’t come across as anything Holmes could not cope with, yet the plot bolstered that with the idea that society was changing anyway.
Thus leaving Sherlock behind, though even then judging by the unwavering support for the character demonstrated for well over a century since, that was hard to stomach as well. Condon intercut between three eras, the modern (for 1947) one where Holmes is battling with his ill-tempered for the sake of dramatic conflict housekeeper, then when he was in Japan, witnessing the effects of the recent war, and third the recreation of his memories of that encounter with the troubled woman (Hattie Morahan) who drove him to retire. And then there were the bees, which he obsesses over and become a big plot point in the last act, putting his friendship with Roger, who he has become a grandfather figure to, at risk. That the boy is picking up the traits of Holmes, including arrogance, was an underdeveloped theme when the vagaries of advancing years would seem to be the chief focus, but the truth was with its pacing moving like treacle and only the Holmes name and McKellen’s performance providing points of interest, this was very muted entertainment. Music by Carter Burwell.