Mr Holmes - Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective has inspired a flurry of revisionist reinventions of late – Robert Downey Jr’s dashing dandy in Guy Ritchie’s big-screen action romps, Benedict Cumberbatch’s bored sociopath on the small screen, and even Jonny Lee Miller’s tattooed ex-drug addict in Elementary.

But Mr Holmes, a tender, melancholy drama about the great man in extreme old age – based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind – might just be the most surprising.

Ian McKellen’s 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes, tending his bees in retirement in the Sussex countryside in 1947, is frail in body and his mind is beginning to lose its legendary sharpness to senility. Yet despite his failing memory, he is determined to piece together the details of the disappointing case, 35 years earlier, that precipitated his retirement. Meanwhile, there is another mystery to solve, one involving his cherished bees and his widowed housekeeper’s bright young son (Milo Parker, very impressive).

Mr Holmes - Ian McKellen & Milo Parker

These puzzles don’t have the fiendish elegance of the best Holmes mysteries and their unravelling proceeds at an understandably gentle pace. Yet Sherlockians will still find much to relish.

McKellen, reuniting with Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon, is superb throughout, both as the halting nonagenarian Holmes and, in flashbacks, as the spry, supremely confident Holmes of 35 years earlier.

In both eras, his Holmes is dismissively at odds with the fictionalised ‘Holmes’ of his friend Dr Watson’s versions of his exploits – ‘penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style,’ he calls them. At one point, he even drops in on a matinee screening of The Lady in Grey, a black-and-white 1940s Sherlock Holmes adventure based on the case that continues to trouble him.

In a nice, teasingly self-referential touch that takes the detective’s cinematic career full circle, the actor playing the camped-up, silver screen Holmes is none other than Nicholas Rowe, star of 1985’s juvenile romp, Young Sherlock Holmes.

Certificate PG. Runtime 104 mins. Director Bill Condon.

[swf]http://uk.player.filmtrailer.com/v3.1/&mid=17304&channel_user_id=441100180-1&repeat=1&volume=0[/swf]

To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.