The name and even the face were familiar; but the trappings were missing.
"The deerslayer cap? I'm afraid that was an embellishment of an artist. I've never worn one," says the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes, played to delicious precision by Ian McKellen. "And the pipe? I prefer a cigar."
His Holmes prefers a top hat and morning coat but as soon as we see him stalk a suspect through the streets of London, all is as it should be, and we settle in for a splendid summer mystery in Mr. Holmes, adapted from the 2005 bestseller A Slight Trick of the Mind, by American author Mitch Cullin, and directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Fifth Estate), who teamed with McKellen before in 1998's Oscar-nominated Gods and Monsters.
This is not your grandparents' Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone portrayed the sleuth in 14 films from 1939 to 1946. It is not your parents' Sherlock Holmes: Jeremy Brett played Sherlock in a hit British TV series from 1984 to 1994. It is not even your yours or children's, for that matter: Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr. and Jonny Lee Miller all currently fill the detective's shoes on screens big and small. One particularly delightful scene in Mr. Holmes is watching McKellen's Sherlock slip into a London nickelodeon to watch a screen adaptation of himself. Astute viewers may want to note that the fictional Sherlock, preening aplenty in his over-the-top performance, is played by Nicholas Rowe, who himself played a younger version of the sleuth in 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes. McKellen's Holmes scoffs at the big-screen interpretation and slinks from the theater.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of Mr. Holmes is a case from 30 years prior that caused Sherlock to retreat from London to a seaside cottage in Kent where he quietly tends to his bee collection. He occasionally pulls out a folder of secretive notes and an even-more mysterious faded photograph of a woman. Holmes, now struggling with severe memory loss, attempts to solve the decades-old death of the woman, and the pace of the film matches Holmes limited mobility. Some may consider the film sedate or slow. I would argue Mr. Holmes is stately and rather beautiful. Tobias Schliessler's cinematography and Martin Child's production design glow, framing Holmes against the English countryside, the streets of London and a war-ravaged Tokyo (that's all you get on that plot twist). The film's drift matches Holmes' memory struggles but, ultimately, we are rewarded with loose ends tied neatly with affection and grace.
"Is that him?" whispers one woman to another as Holmes emerges from a steam locomotive, wondering if they're in the presence of the great detective. It is, my dear readers. And in McKellen in the title role, Mr. Holmes is a tender, whimsical mystery that lands somewhere between myth and memory. It's a lovely summer adventure.