Runtime: 1hr 44mins
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It’s a peculiar concept, particularly after Guy Ritchie’s successful action/adventure interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, to cast the title character as an aging man retired from his famed profession and nearing the end of his days. Rather than a villain, or even a mystery to be solved, Holmes faces off against his own mortality. The case he’s left to solve is his own memory. Yet as peculiar as it seems, this film does work surprisingly well.
Firstly, this is not the Holmes of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle series. In fact, part of the premise is that Holmes was inaccurately portrayed in the books voiced by Dr. Watson. Even the trailer alludes to the fact that Holmes, played quite excellently by Ian McKellen, is not particularly fond of the embellishments Watson put on their work. Specifically he claims to have never worn the famous deerstalker hat or smoked his trademark Meerschaum pipe. He prefers cigars, he tells us.
Early on we’re given insight into the now elderly Holme’s private life which includes a love of beekeeping. He’s able to share that interest with Roger (Milo Parker) the young son of his maid Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney). She’s a widow, having lost her husband during the war, and wishes, perhaps naggingly so, to protect her son. He is about the only thing she has left in the world. Protecting him includes attempting to keep him from spending too much time with Holmes and his bees. However, Roger’s defiant curiosity keeps him fascinated not just with the bees, but with the story Holmes is writing.
That story is the one of his final case. Watson wrote it among his other cases, but having read Watson’s version of it, he can’t help feeling as though something is off. As such, he searches his own memory to write a more accurate account as he sees it. Yet in his old age, mortality catching up with him, he can’t seem to recall the important details to the case. He is keenly aware he is nearing the end of his life, but that makes his writing all the more urgent. He intends to finish his version of the story to solve his peculiar feeling about it as much as to correct the creative embellishments Watson dreamed up.
This is a Holmes well past his prime. Gone is 221B Baker Street, his landlady Mrs. Hudson, his brother Mycroft, and even his good friend and colleague Dr. Watson. He spends his days hiding away from society in his retirement in a spacious house far from town. Even after a doctor visit, which reveals perhaps the beginning stages of alzheimer's, he refuses to leave his house in the countryside for a place closer to his doctor with more dedicated care.
One subplot involves Holmes having traveled in the recent past to Japan to pick up a special plant called Prickley Ash that can be made into a honey-like jam to be mixed in tea, coffee, and food with the hope of warding off forgetfulness. He's convinced he needs it to help him maintain his faculties, at least long enough to finish his writing. But as you might expect it’s effect is miniscule, compared to what he gains in his time spent with the curious minded Roger. His pure, infectious fascination with Holmes' writing and beekeeping hobby add fuel to Holmes' fading fire. Together they jog his memory to come up with the facts. As Holmes always has been, he’s concerned with the facts, not fiction or even embellished facts.
His efforts to remember the story he’s writing leads him to read Dr. Watson’s version of the tale, and even to go to the theater to see the cinematic depiction. To witness a man experiencing the dramatized, even fictionalized version of his own life is a fascinating treat that director Bill Condon plays out in an intriguing but subtle scene. The contrast between the fiction of the written stories and the life Holmes is living is part of the point of this version of the character. The fictionalized version is one in which Holmes takes no pleasure, but finding value in fiction (something Holmes rarely affords himself) becomes a major part of the film. Sometimes the truth is painful. Life is long, and in some cases, living with pain is avoidable with fiction, as he would come to learn.
McKellen get’s the chance to stretch his range, playing both a confident 60 year old version of Holmes in flashbacks and a decrepit version of him in his 90’s. He remains terrifically engaging throughout. Whether it’s Holmes writing his story, or the young boy reading it, we escape into these flashbacks to witness Holmes’ real investigation of the story he’s trying to remember. Condon handles both the current and the past delicately. His transitions from memory to reality are cleverly conceived and artfully executed.
Milo Parker does an admirable job bringing Roger to life. Often the best scenes in the film are the ones between he and McKellen’s Holmes. However, the script by Jeffrey Hatcher (based on the novel by Mitch Cullin) rarely allows Laura Linney’s character the depth and screentime worthy of such a talented actress.
There is scarcely a more fascinating subject for mankind to contend with than our own mortality. Stories of both fact and fiction remain filled with the coping of life, loss and aging. To their credit, against the odds, no one has pitted a man such as Sherlock Holmes, known for his brilliant mind and powers of deduction against what is truly his greatest enemy until now. It doesn’t immediately jump out as the clear choice, but I applaud the effort to humanize Holmes in a way never before seen. There’s a good chance that hardcore Sherlock Holmes fans will oppose the film from a conceptual standpoint, but it is nevertheless an interesting story of humanity. His discovery of the power and necessity of fiction is a moving one, even if it’s not brought to the forefront of the storytelling the way it should have been. “Logic is rare” is the quote repeated throughout the film. Even as our powers to possess logic fail us, there’s value in fiction, as evidenced by this very work of fiction.