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    The mystery of human nature

    "One shouldn't leave this life without a sense of completion," declares 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the absolutely superb Mr.Holmes, a new twist on the world's most famous detective that is definitely one of the top films of the year.

    Adapted with verve and vivacity from Mitch Cullin's novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, this tale of a man in search of his memory gloriously reunites Ian McKellen with director Bill Condon after their collaboration on the Academy Award-winning Gods and Monsters. In both films, the focus is an elderly man forced to face up to his disintegrating mind and impending mortality, and how he finds solace in the burgeoning friendship with a younger person in the prime of his physical and mental health.

    McKellen is undoubtedly one of the greatest actors of our time, delivering an endearing and heartfelt performance as Mr Holmes, perfectly capturing the story of a man who embraces his solitude and firmly believes that fiction is nonsense and that fact is logical.

    It is set in1947, when an ageing Sherlock Holmes returns from a journey to Japan, where, in search of a rare plant with powerful restorative qualities, he has witnessed the devastation of nuclear warfare.

    The mystery of human nature

    Faces the end of his days

    Now, in his remote seaside farmhouse, Holmes faces the end of his days tending to his bees, with only the company of his housekeeper and her young son, Roger, with superb performances from Laura Linney and newcomer Milo Parker as mother and son.

    Grappling with the diminishing powers of his mind, Holmes comes to rely upon the boy as he revisits the circumstances of the unsolved case that forced him into retirement, and searches for answers to the mysteries of life and love - before it's too late.

    It re-imagines Sherlock Holmes as a real person whose adventures have been turned into best-selling novels by his friend and partner, Dr John Watson.

    Now old and in failing health, the famously rational detective is forced to engage for the first time with his emotions as his mental powers dwindle.

    The film poignantly shows that fact is not all that counts and that "human nature is a mystery that logic cannot illuminate".

    For those in search of discerning viewing that aptly explores the human condition and the humanness of the human heart, Mr Holmes offers five-star escapism.

    The mystery of human nature

    The theme of ageing

    It was the theme of ageing that appealed to director Bill Condon: "The film has the form of a Sherlock Holmes mystery in that there is a case from many years before that the detective wants to solve, but it's about ageing and the mystery of Sherlock Holmes," says Condon. "That's the mystery that he ultimately solves. It's such an intriguing premiss - who is Sherlock Holmes if he no longer has that amazing mental acuity and who are any of us without the qualities that define us as we enter the last stage of life?"

    Jeffrey Hatcher's screenplay is incredibly dense, rich and poetic.

    "It's about a very flawed Holmes," says Hatcher, "which started to be revealed in the 1970s in films such as The Seven Percent Solution and Naked is the Best Disguise - Holmes there had more cracks in the façade. So the idea of a flawed Holmes is not new but in this case he's also losing something of his intellectual capabilities, the tumblers aren't quite clicking as they used to, so not only is he struggling with relating to other people, he is also wrestling with his talent failing him. He needs to find some way to revive those powers otherwise he can't make sense of his life, he doesn't know why he's retired, he doesn't know why he's with these people. He can feel the despair and the guilt and the loneliness because he can't remember how he wasn't able to solve that case 30 years ago. He knows he failed but he doesn't know why and without knowing why he can't move forward."

    "It's a mystery, a thriller," says McKellen. "The story creeps up on you and gets more complicated as it unfolds." People are intrigued by the private lives of detectives. Conan Doyle may have started that, but Agatha Christie with Miss Marple and Poirot followed on. There have been endless books about detectives and their personal problems, which may be at odds with their public image. That is certainly true of Sherlock, I think that's why people go back again and again to Holmes."


    The actor was also intrigued by the notion of playing Sherlock at such a grand old age "The character being 93 was appealing as there aren't that many wonderful screen stories around about the life of an old man," he says. "At my age, I'm inevitably interested in what it's like to be an old man, surviving your friends and trying to make new ones and trying to understand a sometimes alien world. It's not a fantasy world that he lives in but a very real world and is interesting to me as I overlap with it as it starts in 1947 and I would have been six or seven then and could have met this character.

    "It's a complicated and delicate movie and in Ian's hands it's a study of the last stage of life," says Condon." With diminished powers, things come into focus and given the opportunity to overcome limitations someone finds a way to do something new with their life. This is truly an icon playing an icon. Ian's fiercely intelligent and to have the opportunity to watch him playing that was very satisfying."

    "And who are any of us without the qualities that define us as we enter the last stage of life? "It's a study of the last stage of life - how even despite diminishing powers of the mind, important things come into focus and, if a person is given a way to overcome limitations, he can do something new with his life."

    About Daniel Dercksen

    Daniel Dercksen has been a contributor for Lifestyle since 2012. As the driving force behind the successful independent training initiative The Writing Studio and a published film and theatre journalist of 40 years, teaching workshops in creative writing, playwriting and screenwriting throughout South Africa and internationally the past 22 years. Visit
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