Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Sir Ian McKellen plays a 93-year-old Sherlock, wiling away his retirement on the Dover coast and slowly losing his great faculties. Replacing Dr Watson is the young Roger (Milo Parker), the son of Holmes’ housekeeper (Laura Linney).
Forming a bond with Roger, Holmes tends to his bees, reminisces on old cases he left unsettled and laments his fictitious and exaggerated portrayal in Dr Watson’s numerous accounts, the elderly Mr Holmes lacking a taste for the theatrical. McKellen is the film’s one redeeming feature, a pure delight in and of himself regardless of who or what surrounds him. A talented and riveting actor, I would almost have been happy to watch him read The Speckled Band or any number of Doyle’s stories rather than sit through this lacklustre account of the great detective’s work.
Novels, short stories, radio-plays, theatre, films and television-serials based on Doyle’s work have held an audience’s imagination and interest for over a hundred years due to the mesmerising and all-together fascinating mysteries that only Sherlock could solve. Introducing logic and deductive reasoning at a time when people still believed that a magical hound could be the culprit, the method of the consulting detective has had an immeasurable impact on popular culture, the term canon itself originating from Doyle’s body of work.
There was none of that here, only the recounting of a few cases that Holmes was not satisfied with. None of the great leaps of reason, no wondrous denouement, just the detective discussing some of his least-satisfactory moments through flashbacks. The narrative drive and anticipation that made Holmes and his stories so captivating was missing, taken up instead by his contemporary interactions with Roger, his mother, and a hive of bees.
Yes, Holmes himself is fascinating and anyone who adored the stories growing up, myself included, want to know what the man does when he’s not retrieving tobacco from a Persian slipper. All the revealing moments about the man in Doyle’s dramas took place in the context of other cases and interactions with key friends/nemeses, most famously his brother Mycroft, or Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia. Here, there is no real mystery, no enthralling case, the focus on his later years providing no real opportunity to put his great mind to the test one last time.
In one scene, Holmes visits a cinema where a film based on his life is playing, enjoying a nice tongue-in-cheek moment as its title character chuckles at himself on screen. While the film playing that day may have been hokey and theatrical, it still had some of the great Holmes drama and thrill-seeking which fans have come to know, love and expect.