Movie Review: McKellen shines despite the thin mysteries of “Mr. Holmes”

holmes13stars2He’s being cagey, this old man introducing himself to the woman he’s been following.
“I am, by disposition, a hobbyist,” he says, mysteriously. This, after he’s told her the scent she’s wearing and other details about herself she wouldn’t expect him to know.
The aged hobbyist is Sherlock Holmes, long retired, summoning up memories of his “last case.” His memory is going, and if he has any prayer of setting the record straight about all that “worthless” fiction his longtime friend Dr. Watson spun about him, he has to hurry.
As ever, this Holmes, played by Sir Ian McKellen with a grand, doddering impatience, has no time for nostalgia, imagination and sentiment, “commonplace” things.
“Logic is rare,” he declares. “I dwell in logic!”
“Mr. Holmes” is an elegiac, understated tale of The Detective in Winter, a rare thing in its own right. In the showy/show-offy canon of the World’s Greatest Detective, summoned back to life recently by the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, “Mr. Holmes” stands alone as a poignant testament to a great mind grown old, an aged polymath who still has one thing to learn.
It’s 1947, and a long-retired Holmes lives within sight of the cliffs of Dover, in Sussex, Hedley House, where he keeps bees. Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, keeps house for him. Her young son Roger (Milo Parker) is the 93 year-old Holmes’ protege.
Holmes is freshly returned from Japan, where he pursued a plant supposed to aid the memory. He needs this “Prickly Ash” to recall that last case, a pre-World War I hire by a husband (Patrick Kennedy) in search of what his “melancholy” wife (Hattie Morahan), who has taken up the ethereal, mysterious and dangerous glass harmonica to battle her depression, was up to.
Director Bill Condon, who first came to fame with his first period piece teaming with McKellen (“Gods & Monsters”), keeps the camera close to his muse as Holmes tends to a his troubled bee-hives and rummages through his study and his possessions in search of clues and passes on wisdom to the boy, who is enthralled but not intimidated by this man he comes to know well.
“One shouldn’t leave this life without a sense of completion.”
The story skips between the recent past — a trip to post-war Japan — the distant past of that last case — and the fictive present. And McKellen never loses our undivided attention. To his credit, he doesn’t give Holmes that Old Man’s Twinkle that has long been a Hollywood crutch. His Holmes is weary of the “fiction” that his biographer Watson imposed on him, ready for death but not eager to see it arrive.
The “case” itself may be deflatingly mundane, but McKellen mines it for all that it’s worth and reminds us of the great thespian that his years of wearing the wizard’s robes haven’t diminished. He makes the Great Detective’s dotage rewarding, just in the details.

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking

Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hattie Morahan, Roger Allam
Credits: Directed by Bill Condon, script by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on a Mitch Cullin novel. A Miramax/Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:44

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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