There will be no deerstalker. There will be no pipe. In their place will be a straw hat and a walking stick. But with the appetite for Sherlock Holmes growing after the worldwide success of Benedict Cumberbatch’s television portrayal, Sir Ian McKellen is about to give fans of the great sleuth more of what they crave.
The 75-year-old actor’s new film, Mr Holmes, has its world premiere at the Berlin film festival on Sunday and offers a vision of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective living quietly in retirement in Sussex, keeping bees. Directed by Bill Condon, the film is about a crime, but also about age, unreliable memory and the power of the past.
Preparation for the part has allowed the award-winning Shakespearean actor to reflect on his own age. “Mr Holmes really is as much about being old as it is about the crime,” McKellen said this weekend. “I do relate to the ease with which Sherlock talks about death. That ease is something that has come to me and to a lot of my friends. Death is suddenly ever-present, although we all ignore it when we are young.
“For Sherlock, in this story, it is a race against time, and it is not quite like that for me. I don’t intend to retire. I will go on working on and off. I am happily going on with my life.”
McKellen was not daunted by the task of playing the most celebrated literary creation ever to solve a mystery. “Sherlock has already been played by 120 actors and it’s rather the same thing as playing Hamlet. The role doesn’t belong to you and, if you think it does, you have the wrong idea.
“There have been lots of manifestations of Holmes. Possibly the most famous now is Robert Downey Jnr’s, or perhaps Benedict Cumberbatch’s, who is a more traditional Sherlock in many ways.”
Yet it is an earlier incarnation of Holmes that casts the longest shadow for McKellen. “People of my generation tend to look to Jeremy Brett, who played him on television. He did it for such a long time and so astonishingly well. I would not even want to challenge that performance. My little Holmes adventure is nothing like anybody else’s Holmes.”
Burnley-born McKellen was drawn to the screenplay’s treatment of memory. “I have been thinking about my own memory recently because I am thinking about writing a memoir. I have not kept a diary, which would have made it a lot easier. There are plenty of things I have forgotten and it is usually a great pleasure if someone does remind me of a lost memory. But memory works like that. It discards things and keeps others. It has its reasons.”
The film is based on American writer Mitch Cullin’s 2005 book A Slight Trick of the Mind, and has the premise that Holmes is struggling with the early stages of dementia and trying to recall his last case.
“He is happily living as an apiarist, a long way from London and from crime, but he knows his memory is not what it was. In the film you see flashbacks of him solving the crime and he is trying to remember how he did it. He knows he did,” said McKellen. “The film actually starts with scenes in Japan, where Holmes is trying to find a sort of elixir that will help him regain his memories.”
McKellen is busy learning a part, which he will play opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, for a television film of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, and admitted he now finds learning lines a chore. “My own memory has not given me problems yet when it comes to work, although learning lines for an actor is not the way people imagine it. It is not like learning a list; it is about connecting emotions with a story. Some of my friends tell me they will not work in live theatre again because of the difficulty they have with lines.”
For the actor, an unexpected bonus of taking the screen role of Holmes was a close encounter with bees. “One of the great joys for me was going to look at the bees kept on the top of Fortnum & Mason’s store in Piccadilly,” said Mc Kellen. “They make honey for the shop, and mostly feed on the flowers and trees in Buckingham Palace Gardens and the surrounding parks, so it is actually purer than much rural honey, where a lot of insecticide and sprays are used.
“Before we started filming in the country, some hives were planted nearby, so they would have time to adjust. I had to deal with them in the film and I am happy to say there were no accidents. I was fully expecting to be stung. I did have to take my glove off at one point, but bees are not interested in stinging you.”
Conan Doyle aficionados will find nothing to offend them in the new film, McKellen suspects. “Anyone who loves those stories will enjoy it. One of the key ideas is that the Sherlock people know was a bit of a creation of John Watson and not the real man. This Holmes much prefers a cigar to a pipe and has never worn a deerstalker.”
The original Holmes stories are not always as the public imagines, McKellen argues. “They are not all set in London. I recently read The Valley of Fear for Radio 4 and much of that is set in America.”
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