An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.
Based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin.
Dementia can be a devastating illness, both for the patients and for their families, especially when the sufferer had an active mind in their younger days. So imagine if one of the most active minds in fiction – that of Mr Sherlock Holmes – was subject to dementia.
That is the premise of this gentle, artistic period drama, starring Sir Ian McKellen as an aged Sherlock Holmes, living in retirement at the seaside in 1947 with his housekeeper and her young son, and peacefully keeping bees. Holmes is haunted by fragmented memories of his last ever case, which caused him to retire from detective work. He knows it must have been awful to cause him to give up his work, but he can’t remember why. Dr Watson’s stories of the cases were always airbrushed fictions of a harsher reality, so he knows he can’t rely on those. Instead he tries for the first time to write his own story about the case, hoping it will help him remember. To find a new cure for his ailing mind, he has even gone so far as visiting Japan for a special plant, but nothing works. In his loneliness, he comes to rely on the inquisitive mind of young Roger, his housekeeper’s son. But Roger’s father died in the war, and his mother doesn’t want him to make a father figure of a man in his nineties, a man who clearly has not many years left to live.
This is a complex and beautiful drama, full of interweaving themes about family loss. The action shifts back and forth between 1947 and the inter-war years, when a slightly more spry Mr. Holmes – still living at 221B Baker Street (or near it, anyway. Even his address is a fiction) – is approached by a man who wishes his wife to be followed. However, matters are more complex than they at first appear. The wife has had a miscarriage, and the husband refuses to acknowledge his wife’s grief. Is she trying to kill her husband? Is she trying to make contact with the dead? We are given the tale in tantalizing glimpses, as the aged Mr. Holmes has spurts of memory, which fade as quickly as they begin.
Meanwhile, back in 1947, a tender relationship builds up between Mr. Holmes and Roger, who is desperate for a father to replace the one he can no longer remember. Despite his mother’s hostility, Roger is interested in reading Mr. Holmes’ story and in trying to help him remember. He is also very interested in the bees, and wants to help take care of them. Holmes, on the other hand, has been a cerebral man all his life and not good with relationships and people. He seems emotionless and says he cannot see the point of fiction. Yet gradually, we see him soften under Roger’s influence, until a tragic event brings his long-hidden emotions to the fore.
There is also the related story of Tamiki Umezaki, Mr. Holmes’ host in Japan, who claims his long-lost father knew Mr. Holmes in England. As the film comes to a climax, Mr. Umezaki’s story weaves together with that of Mr. Holmes and Roger, and of Ann Kelmot, the bereaved mother from Mr. Holmes’ past.
This is a gentle, touching story for the thinking cinema-goer, a touch of relief from high-octane summer blockbusters. Having said that, there are some upsetting scenes. We see evidence of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the bereaved families left behind. And without giving away spoilers, I was in tears near the end of the film, and very worried for the characters. It is a story about love, loss and family. It also has beautifully recreated period detail, of Britain both in the inter-war and post-war years, and of post-war Japan. I highly recommend it.
Photo Credits: Roadside Attractions/Miramax
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