World War II has ended and England has begin the long road back to 'normality'. Sherlock Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen), is now in his early 90s and returns to a country bolthole in Sussex, reluctantly conceding the fact that he is not able to manage everyday life as easily as he would like. The house is run by the widowed Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Roger is fascinated with Holmes and his stories and - beyond the grumpy exterior - the elderly detective quite appreciates Roger's enthusiasm as a conduit to help him finish penning his memoirs. He also turns Roger on to the joys of bee-keeping.
Mrs. Munro is less enthralled. She sees the cantankerous Holmes as less of a role-model for her father-less son, aware that Holmes' lack of social etiquette and his failing health are taking up the time and energy that Roger needs to spend elsewhere. As the connection between the man and boy grows, Holmes tries to remember the details of the case that made him retire in the first place - gaps in his memory are growing and he knows that time is no longer on his side.
As he grasps at the past, in both London and Japan, the great detective will learn that some secrets come with dire consequences, even for those he has cared about...
Anyone looking for some huge 'conventional' Sherlockian mystery at the heart of Mr. Holmes will not find a tale built around many of the bells, whistles and sleights of hand that Doyle created or those that have become the signature of the Moffat and Gatiss era. Yes, there are the requisite moments where Holmes shows us his powers of deduction, intuition and the fact that - if at his best - he is rarely less than one step ahead of everyone he encounters - but this is a film more about the great man in repose. He's looking backwards, rather than forwards, inwards rather than outwards and acutely aware that he can't acutely remember things in the finer details he did.
As much as a mystery, this is more a touching story of a man whose memory and observation skills were his greatest gifts and their gradual loss gives us an often moving portrait of creeping dementia to balance the intrigue. That must be fascinating to explore but emotionally draining to play?
“I just went inside myself. There’s enough creeping dementia for me to exaggerate and imagine, I think. Actually, what I did… I went for the decrepitude of the body and the mind and put all my efforts into trying not to have either," McKellen offers. "It was my own little bit of analysis, really. You can read all these books and put a label on some aspects and say ‘He’s somewhere on the autistic spectrum’ but it doesn’t help me to know that. It might help the shrinks and the education, but actually embodying somebody whose mind and body are beginning to fail… we have intimations of mortality from very early on and an actor can actually be more alert to it than other people and feed off that experience, I think…”
Sir Ian McKellen may be in his 70s - and often takes a pause to consider his answers before replying - but the sharp, mischievous answers come with the charm and frankness for which he is famous. He's turned up wearing a panama hat (quickly discarded), jeans, a smart but casual jacket and a loosely-fitted tie. There's ever the air of a refined noble vagabond and he enjoys it. His fame is something he also wears lightly.
“Well, I’ve just turned 76 and (Sherlock) is 93, so I think ‘Ooo, I have bit more time to kill'. I think ‘Don’t give up’, really. Even right to the end there’s more that you can discover about yourself and the world. That would be a good motto for an old person to have. The old people I know who are keeping at it are really enjoying their lives - even with all the aches and pains. I was up in Wigan where I spent the first twelve years of my life. In the square there, there are a number of ‘stars’ of people who have lived in Wigan and done themselves or the town proud. I have one of those stars. I got a bit weepy, actually. It’s over cobblestones that I’ve walked as a kid every Saturday, going to the fair or go to watch people selling their stuff on the market. The first actors I saw up-close were there. Imagine, a little star. Actually... it’s not that little (laughs).”
Holmes has been a character visited by some of the acting fraternity's best and brightest through the years and not without some controversies. Though the likes of Downey Jnr., Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have had very different - and successful - takes on the great detective in the last ten years alone, the Conan Doyle Estate has bristled at some the various unofficial projects that walked the fine line between changing copyright laws and fair usage. The Mitch Cullin book, A Slight Trick of the Mind, on which Mr. Holmes is based, was an entry that they questioned. So I ask McKellen how he views that balance between tightly-grasped properties and the kind of legacy characters that the audience demands be renewed?
“I can’t comment on any of the legal situation, although I know there was no complaint about the novel which has been on the bookshelves for the last two and a half years, but now the film’s turned up… " he pauses, lifting a well-practised eyebrow. "It’s not as difficult or as remarkable or as puzzling to play a character that so many other people have played, as you might think. I mean, I played Hamlet… and if you started thinking about all the people who have played Hamlet, you’d never step on to the stage… but you do because you know so many people have played Hamlet and have had a success – it’s a wonderful part so don’t deny yourself the possibility of finding Hamlet inside yourself or discovering something that nobody else has noted. That’s true of Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Coriolanus, the Ugly Sisters, King Lear… and here we are with Sherlock Holmes, another famous part that many people have played. I used to listen to John Gielgud on the radio. John Gielgud playing Holmes! Ralph Richardson, another hero of mine, was Dr Watson. Good luck to us all, I say. Derek Jacobi will be playing Sherlock Holmes next, you watch! (laughs)"
The veteran says that despite all of that, Holmes was not a part he actively pursued.
"I never had any ambition to play Sherlock Holmes. If I ever thought about it, I thought 'Well, I’m too old'. Then this part of a ninety-three year-old Sherlock comes along, so that’s alright! The difference with this, compared with Hamlet is that my Holmes is a script that no-one else has done. This is a different aspect of him and...I think he comes out of this story rather well. It is another play on the familiar character and I like the way it would be possible to just sit through the film and believe that Conan Doyle had written it. There’s a plot but there are themes, really, and one of them is very touching – someone we think we know well, Sherlock Holmes, and someone perhaps we wouldn’t have liked to spend much time with [because] he’s not a very sociable person, turns out to have a beating heart."
Instead, the part came to him through the film's director Bill Condon, with whom McKellen had worked on Gods & Monsters...
"I’m very very lucky that I knew Bill Condon of old and he thought of me before any of the other actors who were tearing what’s left of their hair out, I think," the actor offers and admits that thereafter he let the power of the script speak for itself. "I long-learned that if somebody has taken the trouble to write a script, any suggestions I have about any omissions from the source material - whatever that might be - it’s too late. They thought about all that. My ideas are likely to just be irrelevant, boring, unnecessary… which does relieve you of having to read if you’re playing Hitler (as I have done), with enormous biographies on the man or monster. Of course, you will want the script to be good and this one was, and I have to say this was a peach of a part for any actor!"
Having appeared in pantomime (as Widow Twankey) and Coronation Street, he has already fulfilled two major personal ambitions, but if you ask Sir Ian about any future goals, he speaks to the fact of continuing to work, especially with good material and good people
"I’ll tell you what is an ambition: it’s a quote from Gods & Monsters. My character, the film director James Whale, says '...making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world: working with friends, entertaining people' so I have an ambition for that when it comes to making a film - whether it’s a big one or a little one - and this one was that in spades because not only was Bill there, it was fun working with Laura (Linney), fun working with Milo (Parker), but then it was like a party in my house! There was Roger Allam playing the doctor, Frances De La Tour - we swept her away from Vicious, she plays that mad music teacher - Frankie Barber finds her way into the movie! Of course she does! David Fox, who plays the pharmacist… it was so joyful and now that the audience is enjoying it… well, I shouldn’t say that’s a “bonus” because that’s just the raison d’être, isn’t it? But...happy job, is what I’m saying..."
Mr. Holmes will not be to everyone's tastes. Its interweaving narrative strands don't always mesh completely and Sherlockian purists will recognise it more as a beautifully rendered and affecting cinematic character-study that borrows some of the traits of their hero and pays clever lip-service to others as decorations to tell a different story - rather than embracing the whole icon and mythology. That aside, few can doubt it is done with anything less than affection and talent or that this will be anything other than catnip come award-season. And rightly so.
Mr. Holmes is released by EntertainmentOne this week.