Mr. Holmes REVIEW: Ian McKellen astounds as “Mr. Holmes”

Sir Ian McKellen delivers one of his finest screen performances to date in Mr. Holmes, portraying England’s most famous literary detective in a way seldom seen in celluloid, forced by time and his failing mind to resort to other methods aside from logic and deduction to put to rest mysteries that threaten to hound him for the remainder of his days. Considering that McKellen’s work stands out as much as it does here, in a film that’s full of standout work both in front of and behind the camera, is only further proof that what audiences are treated to in this film is nothing less than historic. It simply must be seen — and seen on the big screen — to be appreciated in all its meticulous, elegant glory.

The year is 1947. Sherlock Holmes (McKellen) — the real life detective, not the fictional version brought to life in the published works of his long-time friend and associate Dr. John Watson — is living out the remainder of his days far from east London and that famous address on Baker Street, in a small cottage in Sussex, with just a housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), her young son Roger (Milo Parker), and his beloved bees for company. At age 92, Holmes has been retired for decades, and his keen mind as well as his body is now slowly succumbing to the ravages of age.

But with the determination and will that often characterized his investigations in real life and in print, Holmes has set to work on a final task, one that he previously had thought he’d never undertake: to pen a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story of his own, to relate the details and resolution of a case without Watson’s theatrical embellishments, which included, among other things, the signature deer stalker cap and ever-present pipe. The case relates to one Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), whose husband Thomas (Patrick Kennedy) came to Holmes thirty years before determined to put an end to his wife’s erratic behavior.

The case ended in such a way that Holmes was left devastated and haunted — he credits the case with forcing him into retirement — but his faltering memory won’t allow him to fully recall the details of the case in order to recount them in print and come to terms with them. His frustration and desperation to remember, as well as the increasing difficulty he encounters with simple physical task such as tending to his bees, leads Holmes to rely more and more on young Roger, who it appears himself has the restless and inquisitive mind of a budding detective. The bond Holmes develops with his new and unexpected protegé, as well as his tenuous relationship with the fiercely protective Mrs. Munro, are each put to the test as the aged detective’s efforts to recover his memories lead to revelations that could never be uncovered by a Holmes at the height of his powers, revelations that have very little to do with deduction and everything to do with emotions, an area of human existence that Holmes lived most of his life and career discounting and dismissing.

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Adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (2008’s The Duchess) from the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by American author Mitch Cullin, what makes Mr. Holmes work as well as it does is what McKellen produces in his efforts to bring to life a credibly flawed yet still impressive Sherlock Holmes. Tasked with depicting Holmes both as an old man reliant on a cane to walk and writing the names of people on his sleeve at times in case he can’t recall them immediately and as the great detective who for most people lives up to the legend his intellect and accomplishments have given birth to, McKellen brings great nuance and depth of emotion to his take. Teaming once again with director Bill Condon, with whom he previously collaborated in the 1998’s critically-acclaimed Gods and Monsters, and with a little help from some phenomenal hair and make-up effects from husband-and-wife makeup and special effects artists Dave and Lou Elsey (X-Men: First Class), McKellen’s elder Holmes is particularly arresting to watch, as the frailty and mounting frustration due to the failure of his body and mind look and feel all too real.

McKellen’s efforts are only complemented by the exceptional work of the supporting cast here; Holmes’s increasing reliance on Roger, as well as the kinship with the boy he discovers as he comes to recognize just how keen Roger’s mind is for someone so young, is also one of the film’s great charms thanks to a fine performance by Milo Parker. Linney, looking far frumpier than audiences have ever seen her in mainstream film, is also tremendous here as a good and caring mother made old before her time, haunted by her own losses and fearful of losing more as her son grows closer to and seems to have more in common with her employer than he does with her. All in all, there isn’t a single performance here that doesn’t ring true with the story’s setting or plot progression. Acclaimed Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine, The Last Samurai) certainly deserves mention here, too, playing Holmes’ guide and companion on a trip to post-WWII Japan that’s critically important to the film’s first act and resolution. Everything and everyone just fits, and all of it is a joy to watch unfold.

There’s also a great deal to enjoy in Mr. Holmes for longtime Arthur Conan Doyle fans and folks who have enjoyed seeing Sherlock Holmes brought to the screen again and again by different actors in sometimes vastly different productions. The ways in which McKellen’s Holmes reacts to fictional depictions of him in print and cinema, reactions ranging from bemusement to outright annoyance, are definitely high on that list, as are all the little details scattered through the production design of Holmes’ house in Sussex and his rooms on Baker Street. There’s even a nod in this film specifically for fans of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 addition to Holmsian lore, Young Sherlock Holmes, that’s particularly fun if you’re able to spot it.

Considering all that, Mr. Holmes is without a doubt one of this year’s finest and an extraordinarily satisfying movie experience. With it, McKellen puts his own unforgettable stamp on yet another iconic literary character, one that’s sure to be remembered and compared to the next time a Sherlock Holmes-centric story makes it to the big screen. His work here, as well as that of everyone involved in this production, deserves a place among the best depictions of Holmes, literary or cinematic, and recognition beyond that, as well, so hopefully we’ll be hearing Holmes’s name mentioned again in a few months when awards season kicks into gear.

Mr. Holmes
Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Milo Parker. Directed by Bill Condon.
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.

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