Bill Condon’s elderly Sherlock Holmes caper could have been simply a fun exercise in casting, but instead offers a surprisingly deep and gentle rumination on ageing. As a pitch, it sounds pretty obvious – one of the world’s greatest actor’s playing one of the world’s greatest detectives. However, Bill Condon’s take on an elderly Sherlock Holmes finds Sir Ian McKellen at the heart of a surprisingly touching meditation on ageing and the human condition.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, the film finds a retired Holmes just returned from a mysterious trip to Japan to his home in the countryside, where he has retired in apparent solitude, expecting his working class housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her precocious son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes sees an inquiring potential in Roger and takes him under his wing, introduces him to the art of beekeeping and sharing with him a story of an old case that Holmes himself, instead of Watson, is writing in an attempt to recall the details. Their newfound friendship creates a rift between Roger and his uneducated mother, as Roger begins to look down on her working class position. Meanwhile Holmes is trapped in the past and obsessed with recalling his last case, having made the trip to Japan in search of a substance that could jog his memory about the cause of his self-imposed exile.
Holmes’ last case involved a woman, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), who fell into a deep depression after two miscarriages. Ann’s husband (Patrick Kennedy) is suspicious of Ann’s obsession with talking to her dead children, and of her long disappearances, and has Holmes tail her to discover the reason for her deceptions. The answer is heartbreaking in its simplicity, and there is an immutable bittersweetness to its consequences that gives us what Conan Doyle never really did – a fallible, human Holmes.
McKellen gives an unsurprisingly exceptional turn as old and older Holmes. Holmes is facing his mortality while dealing with the loss of those core parts of his character – his incredible memory, his deductive logic. To see such a great actor play out the not too distant future is devastating in its own right, and adds another level to the narrative around Homes’ mortality. Faced with the death of a number of bees in his apiary, Holmes declares that he is not interested in the deaths themselves, but what caused them, an attitude that returns to fatal effect later in the film. Condon grapples affectingly with the human condition, and the lonely fate that perhaps awaits us all.
Laura Linney is excellent as a woman who must be content with her lot, in a society that offers her little else, while Milo Parker embodies a turning point for the next generation, the hope of advancement that does not extend to his mother, and the disdain that comes with it. For a young actor, Parker is faced with the difficult task of making Roger sympathetic while delivering a small scale enactment of post-war class divide.
The film offers space for its characters and audience to ruminate, but perhaps one too many issues on which to do so: the inevitability of ageing, the growing class divide in post-War England, the tension between compassion and pursuit of the truth, the repressed attitudes towards mental health, grief and depression, the various merits of fiction versus facts.
As such, the plot is somewhat crowded – Holmes’ trip to Japan, and his meeting with a self-proclaimed fan, Umezaki, ultimately offers Holmes’ the opportunity to embrace the restorative powers of the imagination, but feels shoe-horned into the narrative around Ann Kelmot, which carries the most weight both for the plot and the third act gut-punch. Likewise the amount of time spent on the bees and beekeeping feels like a metaphor that never really pays off.
It is gratifying to see a period film that is not all enviable costumes and glorified antiquity. Condon certainly has fun with the past, but he shows as a society that cannot allow a woman to mourn for her lost children, that looks down on its working classes, that cannot sensitively comprehend the complexity of depression.
Ultimately, Condon gently undermines the tenets of Conan Doyle’s creation. The original Sherlock Holmes championed logic and spurned human connection outside of his faithful companion, Watson. Condon shows us the long-term consequences of this, though not without an opportunity for redemption. For what could have been a gimmick, Mr Holmes is a satisfying adventure in growing old.