Sherlock Holmes seems to get younger every year. The great detective used to be a tweedy, pipe-smoker – at least in his best-known on-screen incarnations when depicted by Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and, most famously, Basil Rathbone – but he has recently mutated into a hyperactive, blisteringly sexy action hero, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Downey Jr.
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Mr Holmes, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, is a refreshing break from this trend. Bill Condon’s affectionate homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation returns us to a decorous, sun-drenched, period-drama England of steam trains and horse-drawn carriages. And its Sherlock (Ian McKellen) isn’t just old, he is very old: 93, to be precise. Resisting the temptation to do any of the digitally-assisted kick-boxing enjoyed by Cumberbatch and company, he is a scowling, beaky retiree who walks with a cane and looks like a dapper vulture: kudos to the make-up artist who added two decades to McKellen’s age, and two centimetres to his nose.
The film is set in 1947, when the nonagenarian Sherlock has long since given up on the sleuthing business. He has moved to a quaint rural property on the south coast of England, where he tends to his beloved bees, and where he is tended to in turn by a widowed housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney), and her hero-worshipping son Roger (Milo Parker). Why exactly Holmes decided to abandon London and detective work is a mystery, as much to him as to everyone else. His memory isn’t what it was, but he thinks that one of his cases went so disastrously that it drove him into exile, and he is determined to piece together what he can remember of the episode before his mind fails him completely. In effect, he has to crack a case which he cracked once before.
Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mr Holmes uses this clever conceit to investigate the ways in which people can be affected by the loved ones they’ve lost, and the ways in which reality can be affected by imagination. At one point, Sherlock sits in a cinema and tuts at the inaccuracies in a film based on his adventures: in a neat postmodern touch, the star of this film-within-a-film is Nicholas Rowe, who played the character as a teenager in Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes.
As cosily picturesque as it may appear, Mr Holmes has the knowing wit of the current crop of action-hero Holmeses, as well as the structural sophistication of Conan Doyle’s own stories, flashing back as it does to the fateful final case in London, plus a trip to war-damaged Japan. But what sets it apart from most contemporary takes on the material is its undercurrent of warmth and humanity. The Cumberbatch/ Miller/Downey interpretations of Sherlock don’t just present him as a one-man army, but also as a borderline psychopath with no more empathy than the Terminator. McKellen’s mature Sherlock is more vulnerable and more touching: he is painfully aware that he doesn’t make the same emotional connections as other people do, and he is capable of kindness and regret. McKellen was Oscar-nominated when he was directed by Condon in another elegiac drama, 1998’s Gods and Monsters, and there is a fair chance that he will be nominated again for playing Sherlock as a spry 60-something as well as a faltering 90-something.
Whether the film itself will receive any award nominations is a different matter. As graceful as its scenic ruminations are, there’s no getting away from the fact that, ultimately, the plot is almost non-existent. It’s true that Sherlock solves two mysteries, one in the past and one in the present, but they are both so slight and anticlimactic that his detective work amounts to 15 minutes of screen time. For the rest of Mr Holmes, he bonds with his housekeeper’s son and potters about with his bees, which means that the pacing is far too leisurely, even for a film revolving around a man in his nineties. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad, after all, to have some of the whirling action you can expect when Cumberbatch, Miller or Downey is playing the role.