Monday, July 20, 2015

MR. HOLMES is a Master Class in Acting From Sir Ian McKellan

MR. HOLMES Review:

- MR. HOLMES is both exactly what you think it is and not quite what you're expecting. Yes, Mr. Holmes is a stately, magnificently-acted showcase for Sir Ian McKellan as an aging Sherlock Holmes. But no, it is not an intricately-woven, mind-bending mystery in the vein of the current BBC series. MR. HOLMES does have a mystery at its center, but the focus here is really on Holmes the man. And in telling that story - about an ailing legend looking to settle affairs while he still has time - McKellan delivers a mesmerizing turn. This isn't a rollicking adventure or a twist-a-minute mystery, but it is a meditative, artful film that invites you to sit back and just soak in its central performance.

Director Bill Condon has had an interesting and varied career - he's made small-scale dramas like Gods & Monsters and Kinsey, musicals like Dreamgirls, and even directed two Twilight movies. But MR. HOLMES is squarely in his wheelhouse - a small movie that focuses on a central, iconic protagonist. I found the structure of the film interesting. The bulk of the film gives us a ninety-something Holmes living in 1940's England. Holmes has moved away from his beloved Baker Street, now residing in a seaside home where he lives in relative isolation - save for his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son Roger. But the film also flashes back to twenty years earlier, when Holmes was still active as a detective. The focus in these flashbacks is on Holmes' final case, one that sent him into premature retirement. Without spoiling anything, the interesting thing about the case is that it's not an epic clash with an arch-nemesis or a dangerous investigation into criminal activity. Instead, it's a very small, very human case that exposes something about Holmes' character - something that makes him question the man he's become. But now, ninety-something Holmes has forgotten the details of the case - a problem complicated by increasingly worse memory loss. And yet, Holmes - whose career was long documented and sensationalized by his old partner Watson - now seeks to write down his own life story, in his own words, while he can.

There's so much to say about McKellan's performance here. He is so convincing as a very elderly, memory-addled Holmes that it's almost a relief to see him playing the slightly younger, much more spritely version in the flashbacks. But as the older Holmes, McKellan is masterful. Still possessing of a keen intellect and sharp wit, it's a joy to see the flashes of the world's greatest detective emerge. It's also a joy to see the relationship between Holmes and his housekeeper's son Roger. Roger, nine or ten years old, idolizes Holmes and is eager to learn everything he can from him - even if most of Holmes' adventures now consist of beekeeping and taking an occasional dip in the ocean. Even as Roger forms a bond with Holmes, his mother disapproves. Increasingly having to act as a nursemaid, Mrs. Munro talks of leaving Holmes' employ for greener pastures. Laura Linney is excellent in the role - while we as an audience can't help but sympathize with McKellan's Holmes, it's also easy to see why tending to him would be frustrating. McKellan, all the while, is funny and likable - but also often heartbreaking. As Holmes vainly searches for cures to help with his memory loss - even traveling to Japan because of the rumored potency of weeds from the Hiroshima blast-zone - you can't help but feel sad at seeing this fading legend struggle to come to terms with his own mortality. When we flash back though, we get to see a still-nimble, even cocky Holmes at or near the height of his powers. Now a verified living legend, it's pretty amusing to see Holmes' bemusement at his celebrity status - he even drops in on movies about his life and smirks at the inaccuracies.

The greatness of MR. HOLMES is almost entirely tied to the greatness of McKellan's performance. The small tics, the annoyed grunts that symbolize a man who's seen it all, the flashes of recognition and genius that shine through a clouded mind. It's a master-class in awesome acting. Condon knows enough to keep the focus on McKellan, and he further adds to the proceedings with gorgeous shots of the English countryside, as well as evocative scenes of Baker Street and 1920's London. The only thing that really keeps the movie from being a classic is that the story feels too slight. The details of Holmes' final mystery are mostly beside the point - but still, it would have been nice for the mystery to have a bit more bite to it. I did also like all the references to Holmes lore - there's a lot of fun stuff here, from brief glimpses of Mycroft to mentions of various classic Sherlock cases. At the same time, it would have been nice to get a bit more detail about relationships - like that between Holmes and Watson - that are more hinted at than fully explored.

MR. HOLMES isn't necessarily the epic "one last adventure"  story I'd envision, if you told me that there'd be a movie about the last days of Sherlock Holmes. But that's okay. This is a quiet and contemplative film, but it's also a powerful one - an elegy to a great man who, in his last days, finds the humanity in himself that he'd thought to be long-lost. McKellan does Oscar-worthy stuff here. Highly recommend this one to anyone who wants to see one of the greats at his best.

My Grade: A-

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