Sir Ian McKellen enjoys putting a new spin on Sherlock Holmes in a subdued film that plays with the legend of the fictional detective

Ian McKellen as the older Sherlock Holmes

Ian McKellen as the older Sherlock Holmes

Behind the mask of brusque formality and encroaching dementia, Sir Ian McKellen seems to have indecent fun with his Sherlock Holmes.

He certainly has the voice for the curmudgeonly detective, all clipped bon mots and aloof harrumph-ery, his jowls like sycophantic lackeys, reinforcing his indignation.

Pleasingly, we get two Holmes’ for the price of one. The elderly diminished figure tries to round off his life by scything an irritating hangnail of a case while the earlier version shines as most brilliant and accomplished man in London.

In 1947 the 93-year-old figure lives in Sussex with a widowed cook Mrs Munro (a beautifully melancholic Laura Linney), her precocious boy Roger (Milo Parker) and some bees. Holmes grunts and heaves and infuriates, aware that he is a lesser man now and growing more diminished by the day.

• Also online: Interview with Sir Ian McKellen and Laura Linney

He writes – or rather re-writes – his last ever mystery (given a gloss by long-gone Dr Watson) in attempt to jog his fast-fading memory. Why was it his swansong, he wonders, as he tries to piece together fragmented thoughts.

And so the film moves along in its stately Sunday evening costume drama pace, switching effortlessly between 1947 and 1917. Director Bill Condon allows the the camera to linger on the bucolic Sussex countryside or marvel at the elegant frock coats while old troupers like Frances de la Tour show their pedigree.

The case that sent him into retirement and exile concerns a woman who, her husband alleges, is dabbling in the occult following two haunting miscarriages. It should have been a simple case for the brilliant Holmes and yet something went terribly wrong – if only he could remember what it was.

Time is running out for Holmes but the hard-hearted old coot makes time for young Roger who has a fascination for the legend of Sherlock Holmes that is shared by a voracious public. Mr Holmes assures the boy that Dr Watson’s Holmes – deerstalker and all – was a fabrication. He is the real thing.

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in his prime

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in his prime

The play on the fictional and non-fictional is a constant theme. There is one delicious moment when the “real” Sherlock Holmes (McKellen) watches the “fictional” Sherlock Holmes at the cinema – played by one Nicholas Rowe who fans will recognise as the actor who starred as the schoolboy detective in Steven Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes.

And so the decrepit Holmes slowly comes to terms with himself, his past and his very limited future. Mrs Munro reveals herself to be more than a downtrodden cook and Roger brings life to Holmes’s grim mausoleum.

Nothing particular of note occurs in this multi-layered, subtle tale – no grand epiphanies or shlocky melodrama – but the journey is pleasant, the culmination satisfying and the characters warm and sympathetic.

Topping the lot, though, is the performance of Limehouse’s own McKellen. Either as grand Holmes with a twinkle in his eye or elderly his counterpart, raging against the dying of the light, he is a treasure beyond price.

Mr Holmes | (PG) 104mins | ★★★★✩