Ian McKellen cements a legacy as ‘Mr. Holmes’

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Mr. Holmes (2015)

Directed by Bill Condon

8/10  PG

In the long cinematic history of iconic Sherlock Holmes portrayals—from the Rathbone days all the way to Robert Downey, Jr.—Sir Ian McKellen’s towering performance in “Mr. Holmes” is perhaps the most extraordinary.

Based on the Mitch Cullin novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” “Mr. Holmes” finds a true-life Sherlock (McKellen) at 93 years of age, quietly tending to his bees as he lives with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young, lively son Roger (Milo Parker). After years of suffering through inaccurate depictions of his life in literature and film, Holmes decides to set the record straight by writing his own definitive account of his final case. But time has made him weary, and his memory is failing. As we flashback to a time when Holmes was twenty years younger, we find him attempting to solve a case involving a man (Patrick Kennedy), his wife (Pattie Morahan), and a glass armonica.

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McKellen had big shoes to fill stepping into a role that has been played by dozens of fine actors before him. In fact, Sherlock has been the subject of more movies than any other character in film history. But “Mr. Holmes” is unique in its approach by focusing more on man than mystery. It’s a moving portrait of a detective whose life isn’t what you thought it was. And McKellen plays it with legendary grace. Donning facial prosthetics, McKellen captures the time-worn, feeble, but still wise Sherlock Holmes. This performance is a treasure. Oscar should be knocking on his door—if he wins, he would be the second oldest actor to take home Hollywood’s highest honor (just days younger than Henry Fonda’s record). Maybe I’m being presumptive in saying that…but I wouldn’t bet against him. Unfortunately, the exceptional talent of three-time Oscar nominee Laura Linney is largely under-utilized in a role that tries to make her an antagonist in a movie that survives without one. But our introduction to Milo Parker (a dead-ringer for a young Thomas Brodie-Sangster) makes up for that. His energy complements Holmes’s tiredness, and their blooming friendship is heartening.

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“Mr. Holmes” offers a more predictable, but far less important, mystery for Holmes and the audience to solve, but it uses the case for a bigger purpose. Holmes’s failure 20 years ago proved to him that mysteries can’t always be solved neatly, cleanly, a conclusion delivered with a pretty bow on top. Human nature doesn’t allow for simple answers. The mystery presented in “Mr. Holmes” is solved slowly, like a dripping faucet, unlike the high-pressure fire hose of the faster-paced action movies Robert Downey, Jr. starred in. “Mr. Holmes” is an all-around highly respectable period piece, full of stunning cinematography and a beautiful score from Carter Burwell (“Where the Wild Things Are,” “True Grit”).

The character of Sherlock Holmes will never die if he continues to be portrayed so unforgettably. McKellen gives the performance of his life, but the success of “Mr. Holmes” goes far beyond its lead. It’s a well-rounded masterpiece.

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