Over the last few years, we've seen a certain literary crime-solver follow the action-packed route with Robert Downey Jr, then stalk around modern-day London as Benedict Cumberbatch, and head to America in the guise of Jonny Lee Miller. We've seen Sherlock Holmes in his prime, puzzling over clues and cracking cases. We've seen him save the day, struggle against a nemesis or two and even shoulder a few rough patches.
What we haven't seen is the famous "elementary!"-exclaiming figure later in life — well, until now that is. Enter Mr. Holmes, an effort that explores what comes next for the cantankerous detective with the brilliant analytical mind. Set in 1947 and adhering to the original timeline for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, the latest filmic take on the ace investigator sees him older, wiser and a little worse for wear. His deductive skills still put others to shame, but his 93-year-old memory is failing.
After a trip to Japan, Sherlock (Ian McKellen) returns to his seaside farmhouse buoyed with hope that he's found the answer to his ailing state; yet even his great intellect can't conjure a solution to getting long in the tooth. As he attempts to gather his wits to write his own version of his last-ever case, he shares his knowhow with Roger (Milo Parker), the young son of his housekeeper (Laura Linney), with the boy eager to learn everything he can from his idol.
Watson might be absent, and Baker Street isn't a primary place of interest, but no rendering of the legendary detective would be complete without a cryptic situation (or several) to unravel. Just don't expect a traditional whodunit, because that's what this film is not. Piecing together the tale Holmes is jotting down — as well as the secretive details of his recent overseas jaunt — actually prove the feature's least intriguing parts. In a film that's more character study than mystery, the real enigma in need of untangling is Sherlock himself.
Other recent screen incarnations have fleshed out the person behind the reputation, though not in such a delicate and delightful fashion as McKellen's hobbling, grumbling curmudgeon. His super sleuth isn't just a formidable brain packaged with some unsociable traits; he's a fragile elderly man facing a short future while looking back on a life he's no longer all that certain about.
It feels fitting, then, that director Bill Condon lets his star steal the show in their second collaboration after 1998's acclaimed Gods and Monsters. In adapting Mitch Cullin's novel A Slight Trick of the Mind and trawling through its driving theme of accepting mortality, the filmmaker hones in not just on matters of the busy head, but those of the unfulfilled heart — and he has the perfect lead for the job.
Condon also boasts a fine eye for the warm hues needed to colour Mr. Holmes' interpretation of the icon's golden years, and a feel for the stately rhythm required for what amounts to a hero's last chapter. Yes, his film is old in its protagonist and old-fashioned in its nature, but it's also an elegant, enjoyable alternative to the recent spate of rousing revisionist takes. That dispelling myths about the fictional hero becomes the film's running joke speaks to the vibe he's going for — and when it comes to Sherlock on screen, it's a vibe that's more than welcome.