Sherlock Without Watson

The trove that are the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle give and give anew for each generation. They’ve been adapted for moving pictures; added to by other wordsmiths – some are up to the mark, others pale by comparison. A recent addition has now come to the big screen, based on the novel ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’ by American writer Mitch Cullin. This movie certainly doesn’t fall short of the mark.

In it there are none of the idiosyncrasies and embellishments of the Hollywood franchise, based on the crowd pulling power of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law – the first of these put me to sleep in Gold Class. Much better is the television series helmed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Presently on our small screens, as well, is an American update with Johnny Lee Miller as the great sleuth. But the production in question, ‘Mr Holmes’ is an entirely different kettle of red herrings to these – and all the better for it. There are no bells and whistles – just straight old-fashioned yarn-spinning.


In this take on the tales the famous detective is presented as a nonagenarian, nutting out his last case through the powers of deduction (his and a young lad’s), before his mind deserts him completely. The film, in my view, is as much a vehicle for the remarkable doyen of Brit cinema, Sir Ian McKellen, as anything else. The audience is riveted to his face whenever he is in view. In all this he needs nothing from the gee-whiz merchants of Tinsel Town, except for some make-up to even more advance his already redoubtable age. To me the back story of the offering – one that caused the old man such a heavy heart – is a filler. It would have been enough to concentrate on his relationship with the boy (an excellent Milo Parker), house-keeper (Laura Linney) and his bees. Roger is the house-keeper/carer’s son, on the verge of teenagerdom and starting to show signs of wanting to wriggle out from under the thumb of parental control. As the film progresses, so the bond between Holmes and this intelligent young man increases. Some critics have used this to riff on the possible homosexual undercurrents here, something they assert exists in all the classic Holmes stories. Maybe I’m naive, but sitting there that day, in my comfortable seat at the State, that consideration never entered my head. Maybe I missed something. McKellen is gay, Sherlock is unmarried – so what?


I also found it puzzling that an American thesp was chosen to play the role of his carer. Looking after Holmes, now retired to a stunning coastal Sussex, is not an easy task given his increasingly curmudgeonly ways, but Mrs Munro does a sterling job. And Linney is sterling in her efforts with an English accent, even if it jars on occasions. She is solid in the role, but I cannot help but wonder why some home grown actress was not selected? Who knows? Perhaps they were all busy or demurred for some reason.

In ‘Mr Holmes’, another product from capable director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters – the latter also featuring McKellen), the literary icon has outlived two world wars. He’s recently been to Japan in search of a mysterious, if plain-labelled, elixir to prolong life. He found it in the ruins of Hiroshima. Alongside all this are his attempts to place together the final pieces in the puzzle that was his final shattered commission. And there’s a beautiful lady (Hattie Morahan) at its core. He is anguished that he rejected, out of hand, her advances – of a sort. At the end of the tale, what happens to the boy further increases his pain. And, if all of the above is not enough of a homily to reflect on, his bees are dying off. That is another conundrum to come to grips with, requiring all his faculties in full working order.


It is a lovely effort, this movie, taking us deep into the soul of a man – one initially appearing to be tiring of earthly existence, without too many of the deeper feelings for his fellow beings. But as the film peels away his outer layers, we find a humanity that most modern takes on Sherlock Holmes lack and therefore this leaves them well in its wake. It was a little tedious around its narrative edge – but at no stage was I in any danger of falling asleep.

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