His last bow...
Given the superhero treatment that Sherlock has had over the last few years, you’d half expect old man Holmes to look like something that would fit nicely in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Instead, we get Sir Ian McKellen sitting quietly in a chair by the seaside.
No Watson. No pipe. No deerstalker. No Sherlock you’ve ever met before – unless you’ve read Mitch Cullin’s source novel, A Slight Trick Of The Mind, which reimagined the super sleuth as a man in his quiet, twilight years; tending his bees, pottering around the garden and trying to write his real memoirs.
Grown old and tired of his own legend, this Holmes is a Victorian celebrity cast adrift in 1947, washing up in a Sussex farmhouse under the care of his brusque housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son (Milo Parker).
Watson may be absent, but he still casts a long shadow over the film as the author of the sensational tabloid tales that made them both famous. Ever more interested in fact than fiction, Holmes wants to set the record straight before his mind fails him completely.
There’s still a bit of super-sleuthing to be done in the form of a few flashbacks, but the real mystery to be solved is Sherlock himself. The character is a literary enigma that was underwritten by Doyle and overplayed by many on screen. McKellen, though, gives us the most human Holmes we’ve ever seen. Stripped of his powers – and slowly realising that he never really had any – Holmes at 93 is finally someone we can understand; even love.
Dragging the baggage of a hundred other adaptations behind him, McKellen’s Holmes is at odds with his own reputation: still capable of assassinating a stranger’s character from a single missing shirt button – but still incapable of realising just how hurtful that can be.
Bill Condon (reuniting with his Gods And Monsters lead) directs without ostentation, letting McKellen set the shuffling pace. The end result treads a risky line between melancholic and made-for-TV. There’s sweetness and light from Linney and Parker, but Condon struggles to let them into his story as much as Holmes does.
Quibbles aside, this is easily the best Sherlock story that Conan Doyle never wrote. A film more about retirement and regret than questions and answers, it sees McKellen gently, brilliantly expose the frailties of an immortal character.