Sir Ian McKellen stylishly inhabits the role of Sherlock but the film is hampered by relying on two flashback sections
Yet another artefact from the Sherlock Holmes industry rolls off the production line. (I personally would like to see a film version of Simon Rich’s short story The Adventure of the Spotted Tie, in which the besotted Holmes somehow fails to spot clues that his girlfriend is flagrantly cheating on him – but this will do in the meantime.)
It is loosely adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, featuring Holmes at 93, living in cantankerous retirement in Sussex in 1947 and exasperated at the way he has been misrepresented in Watson’s bestselling accounts of his famous cases.
He is played by Ian McKellen as an ancient but distinguished and leonine figure with a built-up nose – a little like the famous explorer Wilfred Thesiger in old age. His long-suffering widowed housekeeper Mrs Munro is played by Laura Linney, and Milo Parker is her bright young son Roger. The director is Bill Condon, in whose 1998 film Gods And Monsters McKellen also appeared.
It is an elegant if slight piece of work, touching and intriguing by turns, but hampered structurally in that it relies on two separate flashback sections – one showing Holmes’s recent trip to Japan, the other from three decades before, his final case, which still haunts him, involving a mysterious missing woman, Ann Kelmot, played by Hattie Morahan.
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The central conceit is that Holmes, though reasonably content in retirement keeping bees, is agonised by suspicions that he is succumbing to dementia. His doctor (Roger Allam) suggests he keep a diary in which he monitors the situation by marking each forgotten word or name with a dot. Soon each page is swarming with dots, like bees.
He has been relying on royal jelly from his beehives to boost his mind, but now that this seems ineffective he has journeyed to Japan in a quietly desperate attempt to find that country’s medicinal root prickly ash, which is also supposed to have restorative qualities, and to meet his Japanese admirer Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada).
With fountain pen and paper, Holmes is now trying to write the story of his pursuit of Mrs Kelmot himself – a strictly factual account, entirely different from Watson’s crowd-pleasing vaudeville. As he writes, the story comes back. But each fragment of memory has to be retrieved, in agony, from the Alzheimer’s fog. He knows that this case is deeply painful to him, but why?
Condon’s chief inspiration for this new Holmes movie may in fact be nothing by Conan Doyle, but rather Nicholas Sparks’s sentimental bestseller The Notebook, filmed in 2004 with James Garner and Gena Rowlands.
The indirect narrative is interesting and McKellen stylishly inhabits the part both in extreme old age and earlier, in Holmes’s sleek professional pomp. McKellen’s dialogue scene with Morahan, playfully offering to read her palm, is well done, and the whole movie is well dressed and handsomely designed. But I couldn’t help wishing for a meatier and more straightforward, non-flashback Holmes movie starring McKellen. It’s a juicier role than Gandalf.