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 likeDreamgirls 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 fortunate beneficiaries.