Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind”, this is a very different take on the Sherlock Holmes myth, in that it imagines the great detective as a real life figure, now a difficult and bad tempered old man living in rural retirement in post war England, where he is tending his bee hives and railing tetchily against the vulgar fictionalization of his work by the long dead Dr Watson.
He lives alone apart from his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney) and her little boy Roger (Parker). Now 93, he is still troubled by his failure to solve his very last case some thirty years earlier, which involved the disappearance of an enigmatic young married woman Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan). As he struggles to remember the details of the case and to write down the true facts, as opposed to what he contemptuously terms Watson’s “penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style,” he and we realise he is in the early stages of dementia.
It is an intriguing story with an interesting and original view of this oft-interpreted character. McKellen, in real life a fit 76 year old, convincingly plays the middle aged and still vigorous Sherlock in flashback working on that case whose outcome led to his retirement. Despite the luminous Ms Morahan though, these flashbacks and another set in which Sherlock visits atom bomb devastated Japan in search of a miracle cure for his dementia, are the less absorbing aspects of the film. It is in the film’s present time of 1947 that we are totally gripped; where McKellen is disturbingly and brilliantly convincing in his portrayal of the fearful frailty and yes ugliness of old age, in his fear of losing both his memory and the deductive powers that have always defined him and still fretting over that one failure.
The film is not without humour, as in Sherlock’s sly strategy of writing names on his shirt cuffs to hide his failing memory from his doctor (Roger Allam) and a delightful scene which references the whole Sherlock industry, when he takes himself off to the pictures to watch himself played on screen in a black and white movie based on one of Watson’s fictions – a sequence which features a camply comic Frances Barber as the vampish villain in this movie within a movie.
The real heart of the film is his relationship with the widowed Mrs. Munro and her son. Bearing no resemblance whatsoever to Mrs. Hudson of Watson’s fiction and fiercely protective of her son, she hides her kind heart under a dourly suspicious manner, as she struggles with single parenthood and her somewhat difficult employer. She is a woman who is very much a product of war time deprivation and post war austerity and Linney brings her history with her in every gesture and expression.
Parker proves to be another of those remarkable children who are totally natural on screen. Roger is a lively, curious and outspoken child, eager to connect, in contrast to Sherlock, a man with a lifelong lack of empathy for relationships. That, it is suggested, is why he was unable to solve that last case. But it is through the boy’s persistent efforts to engage the old man as a surrogate father figure that Sherlock finally finds his humanity and the ability to connect with another human being, making this ultimately a touching but totally unsentimental story of redemption.
Review by Carol Allen
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