Obviously, everyone loves a sexy Sherlock. But there’s no trace of one here, which is terribly worrying: will anyone under 50 go to see Mr Holmes?
Bill Condon’s take on Sherlock in his twilight years is gentle and complex and it genuinely doesn’t have a single awesome, slow-mo fight sequence. Not one. It’s also genuinely marvellous, which makes it a terrible shame if Cumberbitches and Guy Ritchie fans avoid it. Because it turns out, this film says something important, and the younger you are when you hear it, the better.
The set up is that Sherlock (Ian McKellen) left high-action behind when a traumatic case drove him to give up detecting, 35 years ago. Now 93, with a swiftly deteriorating memory, he spends his days stooped over bee-hives in post-war Sussex. He occasionally grumps at his housekeeper and her little boy too (Laura Linney and Milo Parker). For the life of him, he can’t remember what happened in that dreadful case – but he’s pretty certain it wasn’t how Dr Watson told it in his world-famous novels. For one thing, he was actually never that keen on the deerstalker. As his last Sherlockian act before lights out, he attempts to remember what really happened: a mystery for our dementia-aware times.
Clearly, there’s something a bit chocolate box-y about the twee cottage bathed in seaside summer-sun, but don’t dismiss it. Because frankly, we all like chocolate, especially if it’s one of the decent selection boxes. This here’s no old box of Roses; it’s a tin of Celebrations at the very least. Zero filler. There’s the predictably spectacular McKellen – he balances brilliance, vulnerability and a twinkling wit beautifully. Laura Linney is terribly sad as a widowed housekeeper, lonely in old Holme’s unfulfilling company. And then there’s fatherless Roger, a credible and charming evacuee-type, all elbows and knees and snot. Every one of them has their own complications and misery that makes them ever so watchable.
Mix that cast with an intricate script from Jeffrey Hatcher (adapted from Mitch Cullin‘s 2005 book “A Slight Trick of the Mind”) and we’re really onto something. There are layers of Sherlock-appropriate mystery. While unpicking the cold case, Sherlock also makes a desperate attempt to find a cure for his memory loss. He heads all the way to recently-H-bombed Japan, where he meets his super fan, Mr Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), and another mini-mystery surfaces. Then there’s the case of the unexplained deaths of his beloved bees, which young Roger helps investigate, as a sweet little friendship emerges between them. And, of course, all this intellectual tinkering just serves to get us down to the best mystery of all. The Malteser, if you will. Sherlock has to untangle the source of his own failures in life: unfathomable human emotion.
Sherlock’s a creature of fact, but can he learn to feel before his time’s up? The answer’s smushed up somewhere between the enigmatic woman he was hired to follow 35 years ago, and the little boy who decides to adore him. It’s exactly this little nugget that gives Mr Holmes a validity that makes it worth watching for the aforementioned youthful Cumberbitches. Holmes is about to die alone. His few friends are gone and now he’s full of regret: how utterly terrifying. His salvation lies in the few people alive who will tolerate him. As my cohort crashes gracelessly into a quarterlife crisis, this is exactly the kind of film we should be watching. Because unlike some viewers, it’s not too late for us.
Condon’s Mr Holmes starts off as a story about a man who likes bees and ends with the meaning of life: so come for Sherlock and stay for the existential crisis.