What would happen if Sherlock Holmes – renowned for his keen intellect and powers of deduction – couldn’t rely on his memory?

That’s the central question posed by Mr. Holmes, which sees a Sherlock Holmes in his twilight years, living out the rest of his days while tending to bees. Accompanied only by housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker), Holmes lives a simple and quiet life in the Sussex countryside in 1947.

Spurred by young Roger’s question about his very last case, Holmes valiantly tries to remember the details of his final case — the one which forced him into retirement.

© BBC Films
“You know, I was a wizard once.” © BBC Films

If you’re expecting a rollicking ride through the streets of London, you’d be better off watching either the Cumberbatch or RDJ versions. For a start, Watson doesn’t figure in this story at all. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, the Sherlock Holmes here is quite literally at a different stage in his life. Although the main mystery does drive the plot, it isn’t the reason why this movie is so compelling.

Faced with a Holmes in his 90s, you soon realise that while the intellect and arrogance are still there, they are blunted and tempered by old age. McKellen does an amazing job portraying a Holmes who is desperately trying to dodge the physical problems that come with age. Sadly, he finds out that even his cerebral abilities are no match for an ailing body.

Like the best mysteries, the structure of the movie is non-linear as it jumps around its own timeline. Events taking part in the present are interspersed with scenes of Holmes’s recent trip to Japan and his own memories of his final case. This may just be a simple film technique, but it also mirrors the chaotic mess of Holmes’s mind as he tries to make sense of his jumbled memories. 

© BBC Films
“You shall not pass! Oh, wait.” © BBC Films

I expected great things of this film when I found out that McKellen was playing the titular role, but I didn’t expect such a subtly beautiful performance. At 76, it’s not hard to imagine McKellen himself turning to thoughts similar to the ones that Holmes goes through in this film.

Mr. Holmes is essentially a surprisingly delicate and elegant rumination on the nature of life, death, memory, and human nature itself. This is a Holmes we haven’t really seen before.

More than once I imagined Cumberbatch’s Sherlock sneering at stray mentions of sentimentality brought on by the film’s characters. Meanwhile, McKellen’s gaze onscreen showed signs of understanding (if not quite fully empathetic).

Mr Holmes
Damn, did I leave the kettle on? ©BBC Films

Furthermore, in the scenes where McKellen was playing the (relatively) younger Holmes, there was a certain quiet poise and confidence that was arresting and downright fascinating.

Even with the glut of Sherlock Holmes adaptations in recent years, I found myself wishing that he’d had a chance in his younger years to put his own stamp on the role.

It’s truly a shame that this performance won’t be seen by as many people who saw him as Gandalf or Magneto.

Mr Holmes
©BBC Films

I was also disappointed that Laura Linney’s role as Holmes’s long-suffering housekeeper didn’t give her enough breadth to showcase her skills. That really was a wasted opportunity. However, Milo Parker was superb as Roger, with a performance reminiscent of a young Thomas Brodie-Sangster.

Overall, this was an excellent film, but it’s best if you try to divorce it from the many other adaptations out there. The Holmes here is a wiser, kinder, more tolerant one as he grapples with his memories.

Which begs the question: Who is Sherlock Holmes if he does not have his mind?

Mr. Holmes opens in Singapore today. Tell us what you think of the movie!