"difficult to decipher and a little slow, yet the great Sir Ian McKellan proves he can also do bumbling to perfection"

Director Bill Condon last worked with Sir Ian McKellan on 1998’s tragicomic Gods and Monsters, but here the latter portrays Sherlock Holmes in a light not even the most avid fan of the detective will have seen him in.

Mostly cantankerous, at turns kind, at others mischievous, ‘Mr Holmes’ (played subtly and empathetically by McKellan), hobbling around with the help of a cane, is in the autumn of his years, but one rather melodramatic case refuses to let him end his days in peace. It involves a couple who have lost two children to miscarriage, something about a glass harmonica (really) and a loopy German psychic.

In this surprisingly emotional film, as much about old age and loneliness as cinema’s beloved sleuth, it is 1947 and Britain’s beloved detective is 93-years-old, living out his retirement in a picturesque Devon cottage.

Watched over by his perpetually disgruntled housekeeper Mrs Munro (another low-key but extremely moving performance from Laura Linney, whose West Country accent is faultless), his days are brightened considerably by the existence of her 10-year-old son, Roger (Milo Parker), and his beloved aviary.

Though Holme’s memory is failing him and his body is not far behind, he knows without a shadow of a doubt that the case which caused him to quit detective work 30 years before involved something awful, and he must find out what.

He does this in fits and starts, via the use of flashbacks (McKellan also plays Sherlock at 63) which stop and start frustratingly as we live through the heartbreaking symptoms of forgetfulness or something more serious along with him.

This film may or may not prove a hit with fans of Sherlock, portrayed most recently at breakneck speed in the crash-bang-wallop manner of Robert Downey Jr’s version, but it certainly injects humanity into a character that has famously been played in rather stock form.

Mr Holmes, a fake biopic of sorts, is the ruse to the Sherlock Holmes of Dr Watson’s tales. Holmes’ last case is a bit like the man himself: difficult to decipher and a little slow, yet the great Sir Ian McKellan proves he can also do bumbling to perfection.