Directed by Bill Condon
Based on “A Slight Trick of The Mind” by Mitch Cullin.
Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher
Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes
Laura Linny as Mrs Munro
Milo Parker as Roger
Hiroyuki Sanada as Mr Umezaki
Hattie Morahan as Ann Kelmot
Patrick Kennedy as Thomas Kelmot
Nicholas Rowe as “Matinee Sherlock”
Hermione Corfield as “Matinee Ann Kelmot”
Frances de la Tour as Madame Schirmer
John Sessions as Mycroft Holmes
Philip Davis as Police Inspector
Roger Allam as Dr Barrie
Typing the title has annoyed me, I spent years arguing with American editors about a period after Mr (Mr.) and Mrs (or Mrs.). Most British publishers dropped it years ago, but as the film is set in 1912 and 1947, I suppose it makes it look archaic. I’ll try not to repeat this needless piece of punctuation though.
It’s set in 1947 (as “now”) with an elderly Sherlock Holmes, who has long ago retired to a country house on the coast with an apiary. Ian McKellen has to age to play the old Sherlock. His problem is that he cannot remember his last case in detail, and desperately needs to. That took place in just before the Great War, and the costumes are Edwardian – though early on I’d swear he referred to just after the Great War. The sound was somewhat muffled, a problem at this second-run local cinema I’ve experienced before. They have a great sound system, but it’s run about 10% too low for me. Anyway, Sherlock says clearly that he retired 35 years ago, and my maths makes that 1912. The Guardian reviewer may have had the same muffled sound issue, and states it is “nearly thirty years since he retired.’
Sherlock Holmes, retired for 35 years
Sherlock lives with his housekeeper, the war widow Mrs Munro, and her pre-teen son, Roger. Right at the beginning we see the wing of a crashed German plane sticking up in a field. But it’s post war. Mrs Munro wants to leave the old man’s employ and get a job in a hotel. Roger is the old man’s only friend and confidante, and much of the tale is that grandfather (or rather great-grandfather) to child relationship.
Sherlock (in 1947) has just returned from Japan. which is devastated and full of GIs and yes, I think a civilian would have found access hard. This is another flashback story, but perhaps only a month or two before the main one. We see Japan early 1947. He has been asked to visit Mr Umezaki and his mother, and Holmes’ motivation is that he thinks prickly ash will improve or restore his memory. Now here the cinema sound system was an issue because Sir Ian was being examined by his local GP and I thought he said he’d brought some hash back from Japan to improve his memory. A dozen people laughed as the doctor shrugged and said something about “If you want to take it …” I was pondering how hash would improve his memory (if you can remember the 60s …) when I realized at last it was ‘prickly ash.’ I was clearly not the only one who’d thought it was hash. The Japan episode is somewhat weird, because the plant is only found on the devastation of Hiroshima where we see blackened tree stumps in black earth and the bare structure of the town hall (which survives into the current Peace Park). Apparently the atom bomb was directly above it which meant a very narrow column of lesser destruction. I wondered how tree stumps had survived though major buildings had been incinerated as well as whether it was wise for civilians to be strolling around without protection, digging up surviving plants from under a rock. Given the travel time by sea., and that it’s May 1947, it’s only 18 months after the blast.
Back to the present and we’re into problems with bee-keeping (his bees are dying) and Sherlock trying to recall the story of Ann Kelmot, whose husband had engaged Sherlock to follow her in 1912. It’s an intricate and absorbing mystery, so I’ll avoid plot spoilers.
We have flashbacks to 1912 sequences. Ian McKellen (at 76) has had to age 17 years to be the elderly Sherlock who appears to be in his 90s. Devoted Sherlock sleuths have placed Sherlock’s fictional birth date as 1854, making him 93. That looks right. Conan Doyle’s last story The Last Bow is set in 1914, so maybe that 1912 is supposed to be 1914. So Ian McKellen also has to get himself back to 58, a formidable task as it’s 18 years off his real age. His use of difference stance and posture for 93 and 58 allows him to get away with it. They clearly aged him a great deal, but because we’re used to the wizened and lined Gandalf who’s centuries old, the initial impression is “Hmm. He’s aged. Isn’t he acting brilliantly for his age?” which is quite wrong. He is indeed acting a 90 year old brilliantly but he has been aged significantly in the make-up department.
Both 1912/14 and 1947 are realized beautifully on screen. Sherlock’s country house is, exactly as I guessed, near Rye. It’s close to Winchelsea and is a B&B and you can stay there. The cliffs, right by his house in the movie, are at Seaford Head some miles away.
Ann (Hattie Morahan) and Sherlock at age 58 (Ian McKellen)
The story consistently discusses fact and fiction and memory. We accept that Dr Watson wrote the stories, and Holmes is annoyed because they were fictionalized. He never wore a deerstalker and he smoked cigars, not a pipe. His apartment is not at 221b Baker Street, but a short distance away with a view of the faked address so he can watch American tourists looking for it. The fact / fiction comes again because he’s trying to write down the Holmes version of the last case, not the Dr Watson fictionalized version. Sherlock is seen in a flashback, sitting in a cinema watching a film version of one of Watson’s exaggerated retellings of the very case Sherlock is striving to recall… this must be another time scale, I think, but it is a melodramatic B&W insert, featuring Nicholas Rowe as “Matinee Sherlock” in a thin pale Rathbonesque version. In a deliberate casting piece of fun, Rowe used to be the lead in Young Sherlock on TV.
Roger (Milo Parker) and Sherlock at age 93 (Ian McKellen)
Young Roger discusses making up stories … and he discusses memory too. He can’t remember his aircrew father, killed in the war. The local GP has Sherlock noting memory lapses during the day as dots in a diary. These are dots for every time he forgets a name or a word. Bugger, we both said afterwards, the number of dots look about normal for us. Holmes was only invited to Japan because Mr Umezaki wants to know about his own father who disappeared in London circa 1912 (or 1914) having described meeting Sherlock Holmes in his last letter home. But Sherlock can’t remember ever having met him.
Whatever it builds to a climax (around the mystery of dying bees in the hives which he and Roger attend). At the end, Sherlock writes a completely fictionalized account of Umezaki’s dad in a letter to Umezaki. Without plot spoilers he has discovered that fiction – or lies – have virtues which facts do not possess.
Sherlock and Roger … bee keeping is a sub-plot
So an interesting plot and concept in a small scale British film with all-star cameos – a given for the genre. See “Cameos” above. A great short piece from Frances de la Tour as the mystical teacher of the glass harmonica, an instrument I had never heard of before the film. It was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761 and is also known as the glass Armorica, the bowl organ or the hydracrystalophone. Mozart, Beethoven and Richard Strauss composed for it. Its best-known use is in Carnival of The Animals. A German musicologist wrote:
The harmonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation.
A lot of people don’t know that, and yes, it’s part of the plot in this film. Benjamin Franklin’s lightning conductor was a more successful invention. John Sessions pops up for a few seconds as Mycroft Holmes; Phil Davis is the police inspector. You always need a police inspector in private detective tales.
Our enjoyment level was good, but slightly muted. We have two relatives in their 90s with severe memory issues, so it wasn’t necessarily an escapist evening. Also my companion is terrified of the other theme … bees and bee stings.
Excellent performances all round. Appearance is important in Sherlock Holmes films. Part of Benedict Cumberbatch’s appeal is that he looks like Sherlock. I had problems with Robert Downey Jnr, who is a mercurial clever Holmes … but I kept thinking through both films, it’s not Downey, it’s Jude Law who looks like the Sherlock of my imagination. Why is Jude Law playing Dr Watson? In this one, Ian McKellen really does convince me as looking like Sherlock in his later years. But that’s the theme of the film … Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character who so many people take as “real.”
I am into Sherlock Holmes.
Peter Viney’s “The Case of The Dead Batsmen” (LINKED) is a new Sherlock Holmes story written as a graded simplified reader for learners of English (Garnet Oracle Readers).