Mr Holmes film review - solving one last personal mystery

Elegant, and occasionally plodding, but Ian McKellen's ageing Sherlock is gripping to watch.

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in Mr Holmes. (BBC Films)

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in Mr Holmes. (BBC Films)

Despite being the world’s greatest and most recognisable detective, Sherlock Holmes never quite got round to solving one final mystery - why he ever retired.

The Sherlock of Mr Holmes (the eternally sparkling Sir Ian McKellen) is 93 years old and living in a Sussex farmhouse in 1947. Watson is long gone, having married and successfully carved out a career fictionalising the adventures of the unparalleled sleuth and his intrepid assistant, leaving Holmes to keep bees and while the time away, looked after by housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney, flitting from area to area of the West Country with every line) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).

The fictions dig a little deeper than the pipe and deerstalker hat apparently fashioned by an illustrator - McKellen’s Holmes, the ‘real’ Holmes, prefers a top hat and a cigar. Having evaded the novellas for most of his life, he relents when gifted a set in Watson’s will, and discovers, among other things, that many of the cases have been distorted beyond recognition.

His final case, of a man worried about his wife’s curiously evasive behaviour, becomes the focal point of his attention and the narrative, as his 93-year-old mind can barely piece together the true events so he can retell them himself.

Mr Holmes trots across not just two but three timelines, taking place in the present of 1947, the past of Holmes’ final case, and a journey to Japan undertaken shortly before the film’s beginning in search of prickly ash, said to aid his ailing mind.

Across each of them, sets are lavishly designed and popping with detail and colour - a central London bookshop, decorated with ornate staircases and spines of all colours, is a particular highlight. Brilliant make-up is used to colour and age McKellen appropriately - in the earliest flashbacks, his cheeks are rosy and plump to match his mental sharpness; his skin is later drooping, ragged with liver spots, his eyes misting over. He is kept sharp by his conversations with Roger, who begs him eagerly to unravel the final mystery at the behest of his embittered mother.

Despite largely playing it safe with a ponderous screenplay, Mr Holmes holds your attention thanks to McKellen’s warm, affectionate Sherlock in his old age - a contrast to the cold and basely analytical genius he’s often depicted as (and here, in earlier timelines, he is no different). His Gandalf-esque wizened wisdom and the gentle twinkle in those ageing eyes brings sparkling substance to an almost mythical figure usually defined by no more than his headgear.