Brightly turbaned Sikhs, jumbo-sized Americans and Japanese girls posing with selfie-sticks in front of a pretend Bobby at the doorway of 22B Baker Street are testimony to the enduring appeal of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie’s abominable attempts to re-invent Holmes as a hipster super-hero have been given a deserved boot up the rectum by Bill Condon’s introspective, dastardly clever but unexpectedly emotional embrace of the unwilling celebrity in his declining years. It is 1947 and Holmes (Ian McKellen) has been living in retirement for thirty years on his modest estate near the white cliffs of Dover. His hope is to correct the image created of him by his friend Watson – ‘I never wore a deer-stalker hat’ – while at the same time trying to unravel from his fading recollection the circumstances of his last tragic case. Travelling to Japan to gather a wild herb that might restore his deductive powers, he has witnessed the horrendous aftermath of Hiroshima and the experience triggers heartfelt but elusive connections with that case’s sad end – if only he could piece them all together.
Holmes the old man, increasingly aware of his own mortality, and of his bogus existence as a character in novels and movies, finds a guide in his personal quest in the form of Roger (Milo Parker), the young son of his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney). Condon has ventured into this realm before, also with McKellen, in Gods And Monsters (1998), a dreamy essay on love and memory’s torment and the desperate need we all have to share something of ourselves with another. It comes as no surprise to find that McKellen is absolutely engrossing as the stooped, white-haired ancient falling further into the turmoil of his own mind, so Parker’s indomitable eagerness creates the perfect counter-balance that allows McKellen to delve deeper into that grey area of the subconscious. The plot pulls on a couple of long bows, particularly in its Japanese connections, but Sherlock Holmes was never meant to be obvious.