In this gentle drama, Sherlock Holmes is something of a different figure to the one we’ve grown to love – retired, fragile and frail, he spends the majority of days as a bee keeper in a serene coastal town, spending time with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker). As he falls ill, he starts to pensively look back across his remarkable life, and yet finds himself troubled by one case that remains unsolved, which happens to involve an elusive, beautiful woman (Hattie Morahan).
Condon does a fine job humanising an otherwise mythical figure, catching up with him as an elderly gentleman, and exploring the vulnerability and physical limitations that come with that. Death is a prominent theme too, as we become aware that this seemingly perennial character is no longer immortal. Effectively, this film could be of anyone, as it’s merely the tale of an old man looking back over his life, his achievements, and most importantly, his regrets. However it helps matters tremendously that it is a character we know so well, allowing us to understand all of the references and witty remarks, able to comprehend what he has achieved up until this point – thus enriching the emotional aspects to the piece, as it becomes more poignant to see such an intellectual, legendary man suffer from old age just as anybody else world – detracting from his fabled, heroic persona.
The script is somewhat meta too, which is where the majority of the comic elements derives form, as Holmes ridicules the stereotypes that have followed him around, as he claims he has never in fact worn a deerstalker hat, nor does he smoke a pipe (“I prefer cigars”). At one point he even goes to the cinema to watch a depiction of himself on the big screen, and laughs as its illusory nature and how far away it is from his reality. Again, we’re pursuing the man behind the myth. There is also humour to be had in the relationship between Holmes and the young Roger, mostly as it brings out that inherently mischievous side to McKellen’s demeanour, the playful, effervescence he is renowned for. Plus, the youngster doesn’t revere him like others do, and has no qualms telling his older counterpart off, treating him just like a regular human being – which is exactly as Condon wishes for him to be portrayed.
Sadly, however, the picture is devalued and the narrative compromised by the complex structure of this story, as we proceed into several flashbacks – not just from the unsolved case, but of a trip to Japan too. It becomes somewhat overbearing in that regard and disorientating as we lose track of where we are, and which Sherlock we’re in the company of. The film, for all of its positives, becomes a case that even the man himself, in his prime, would have struggled to get to the bottom of.