There’s a rare delight when you can spend time during a film sitting back and just marvelling at the performance of a lead character. Sure, it usually means you’re not fully engaged in the narrative, setting, or the comings-and-goings of the other performers, but still there’s pleasure to be found in revelling in real talent.
Mr. Holmes is at best an affable variation upon the themes set out famously by Arthur Conan Doyle. This Sherlock is infirmed with age, unable to remember his glories past as senility creeps upon him. Surrounded by a housekeeper and her precocious son, Holmes attempts to rescue his past from the fanciful tellings of the dearly departed Watson and find the honest truth about his final case.
Told through a series of gauzy flashbacks to the bustling streets of London offset by softly-lit British countryside locations, the production very much feels like a well-worn paperback book read beachside. Based on Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, the script by Jeffery Hatcher is perfectly adequate to give a sense of both mystery and melancholy.
Bill Condon’s direction is also apt, rarely being showy or particularly effusive, with camera angles and blocking not dissimilar to a made-for-TV drama or production. Again, we’re not seeing much that surprises, nor are we in for a shock at the poor quality of it all. It’s fine, and perhaps for this work that’s enough.
What shines above all, however, is the titanic performance by Sir Ian McKellen. This is one of those “a ha!” roles, where you’ve kind of taken for granted after a slew of comic book and fantasy roles that the star of Gods and Monsters is himself a monster performer. You can almost feel his back pain, so shocking is his subtle and wondrous transformation into a Holmes in his 90s. It’s only when we flashback to the younger iteration that we’re reminded we’ve yet to have the spark of this man’s spirit dulled by age.
Laura Linney’s role as the housekeeper is perhaps as thankless as her occupation bespeaks, yet she does very fine work as being a foil against Holmes’ quirks. Her role is hardly the stuff of deep dimension, nor is the precocious playfulness of young Milo Parker anything memorable.
So, while the film is decent if perhaps contrived and mundane, it’s made just that more magnificent by McKellen’s turn. He’s that breathtaking to watch, that charismatic and engaging on screen that you forget the rest. Forget the lovely countryside, the wisps of mystery and nostalgia, or even the beekeeping metaphors – this is a showcase for the sheer talents of the lead performer and little else. The greatest mystery of all is to try and figure out just how McKellen does things as well as he does, and that’s far more satisfying than the potboiler plot that ties the rest of Mr. Holmes together.