What a pleasure it is to be in the presence of Ian McKellen,
who dominates the screen in Mr. Holmes.
That’s Sherlock Holmes, for the record, a lion in winter as imagined by Mitch
Cullin in his novel A Slight Trick of the
Mind. It portrays the celebrated
detective as a 93-year-old recluse in the year 1947. He lives a quiet life in
the country, tending honeybees, irritating his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and
befriending her bright and curious son (Milo Parker), who dotes on Mr. Holmes
and becomes his aide and confidante.
It’s fascinating to see how Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional
detective continues to inspire authors, screenwriters, and filmmakers after all
these years. I’m happy to report that this latest effort by screenwriter
Jeffrey Hatcher and director Bill Condon is fresh, original, and thoroughly
satisfying. Condon even creates a faux 1940s Sherlock Holmes movie, in black
& white, for an amusing scene in which the retiree decides to see how he is
portrayed on screen. The “real” Holmes in this movie explains, more than once,
that his friend Dr. Watson exaggerated or invented most of the facts in his
popular stories about their adventures.
Mr. Holmes posits
that the elderly detective gave up his practice and retreated to a farmhouse
after failing to resolve a troubling case years ago. That failure still haunts
him and now, in his waning days, he seeks peace of mind by writing about it. But
his mind is failing and the details elude him.
McKellen is utterly compelling, both as the sly nonagenarian
and his somewhat younger self, portrayed in a series of flashbacks. The camera
focuses on his face and registers every nuance of this masterful performance.
Director Condon, who has spent the last decade making big
movies like Dreamgirls and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,
reveals that he hasn’t forgotten how to tell a quieter, more intimate story, as
he did in the film that put him on the map, Gods
and Monsters, which also starred McKellen. Both he and his leading actor
obviously responded to the screenplay by Hatcher, who cowrote one of my
favorite unsung films of the past decade, Casanova.
It’s reassuring to know that there is still a place in the
movie universe for a genteel, mature piece of storytelling such as this. Of
course, it doesn’t hurt that its leading actor has acquired some box-office
clout, thanks to The Lord of the Rings and X-Men. We in the audience are the