His friend John Watson, Sherlock Holmes recalls, took substantial liberties with the facts in creating the popular tales of their adventures together. Dr. Watson enlivened those tales with his imagination; Holmes professes no use for that particular faculty, preferring facts instead. The good doctor himself described his writing output, the old detective remembers, as “penny dreadfuls, with an elevated literary style.”
Director Bill Condon, adapting Mitch Cullin’s 2005 Sherlock Holmes pastiche A Slight Trick of the Mind, brings an elevated cinematic style to an intriguing screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher. Condon, who won an adaptedscreenplay Oscar for his 1998 film, Gods and Monsters, about the last days of the great horror director James Whale, teams again here with that film’s star, Ian McKellen, to give us the twilight years of the world’s most famous detective.
It is 1947. Sherlock Holmes is ninety-three, long retired, living in seclusion in Sussex, and keeping bees. He is cared for by his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her precocious young son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes is engaged in writing his own recollections of his final case, one that still troubles him and that led him to give up detecting. Watson’s account of the affair tricked it out with success, but Holmes remembers it differently . . . To the extent that he can remember it at all. That great mind is beginning to slip its moorings; that brilliant memory is beginning to fail. His doctor (Roger Allam) tells him to make a dot in his datebook every time he can’t recall a name or a place. The book is soon dotted like a kid with chicken pox. But Holmes struggles along, writing in order to jog his memory.
The movie’s story weaves together three strands. The first is set in Sussex and regards Holmes’ writing, his relationship with Roger, and a mystery concerning the unexplained death of some of his bees. A second involves a trip he takes to Japan soon after the end of World War II, during which a Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) helps him to locate a rare herb, prickly ash, that is said to have restorative powers for the mind and which they find growing in the ashen wasteland of Hiroshima. (There is more to Umezaki than meets the eye, but Holmes’ is no ordinary eye.)
The third strand is a flashback to the case Holmes is desperately trying to recall before his powers fail him. The Case of the Glass Armonicist, decades earlier, had Holmes trailing a young wife (Hattie Morahan) at her baffled husband’s behest. In Watson’s telling, it was another triumph, and the elderly Holmes even finds himself in a movie theater snorting at a Hollywood version of Watson’s account. But something went wrong — if he could only remember what.
The great McKellen navigates the times and places of these narrative threads with superb acting and excellent age makeup. Young Parker makes a bright companion, and Linney, while not a perfect fit as an English country widow, does good work as well. — Jonathan Richards
“Elementary,” said he: Ian McKellen and Milo Parker