Do you realize that while he has been nominated for two Academy Awards, Ian McKellen hasn’t won an Oscar? It’s true – two nominations (“Gods and Monsters,” “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”), zero wins. Perhaps though, this year is his year.
McKellen’s latest role finds the actor taking up the deerstalker and pipe of the world’s most famous consulting detective… not that this Holmes ever wore a deerstalker. Yes, McKellen is the legendary creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, who is trying to solve one last case in the Bill Condon directed film, “Mr. Holmes.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but McKellen is brilliant. The Holmes we find in the film is aged, infirm, and losing his memory. McKellen offers a heartbreaking portrayal of a man whose ability to think had been his sharpest, most formidable, weapon.
“Mr. Holmes” takes place in 1947, or it does except for when we get a bit of Holmes’ memories from an earlier case. In this post-WWII era, Holmes has sequestered himself away from London, from his old haunting grounds, confining himself to a seaside farmhouse where he keeps bees and is cared for by his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney). Much to Holmes’ displeasure, Mrs. Munro has a son, Roger (Milo Parker), who is constantly underfoot.
As we learn, Holmes’ self-enforced solitude came about following his final case, a case for which he can’t remember the solution. We, the audience, watch in rapt attention as bit by bit Sherlock unravels the mystery for himself and for Roger.
The movie opens with Holmes returning to his farmhouse following a trip to Japan, where he found a root that may just help with his malady. No easy trip, Holmes made it because he cannot stand the notion that his mind is failing. Over the course of the film we get to see Holmes bluff his way through his memory problems, including writing names down on his shirt cuffs, but as time goes on, his ability to hide his problems wanes.
Linney provides an excellent foil for Holmes, making it clear that while she does not like the man, she does find it her duty, as long as she is employed by him, to make sure he is well. She is stern, but not without heart, and struggles not only with Holmes and his eccentricities but trying to figure out the best situation for herself and Roger.
“Mr. Holmes” suggests that justice is rare, which is something that many of us know to be true. In the case of this film and the acting, it would be no more than justice for McKellen to receive another Oscar nomination, and quite possibly take home the statue that has eluded him twice. The portrayal McKellen offers is so wonderfully nuanced, so epically heartbreaking and hopeful, that one wants nothing other than to spend more time in his company, watching his careworn face as he struggles to recall that next detail he needs, and to help him with this Herculean endeavor. When the film flashes back to that final case from nearly 30 years earlier, the more spry, more nimble version of Holmes McKellen provides the audience is no less brilliant, no less compelling. It can be no easy feat to portray the same man at such different points in his life, but the actor makes both come alive and feel equally three dimensional.
The film isn’t just about Holmes ability (or not) to remember either, it also looks at myth vs. reality. Holmes, in this world, is famous for his work which has been popularized in Watson’s books. But, the reality of the man does not always mesh with the popular conception, and in one particularly amusing scene, Holmes goes to see a B-movie featuring a fictional version of himself and Watson. It is an incredibly amusing moment, but as with everything in “Mr. Holmes,” it all leads back to the case at hand, Sherlock’s failing memory, and a past that is brighter and longer than the future.
Movies, of course, are not just made with plot and characters, and it would be foolish to suggest that the only excellence here lies amongst the actors and the director’s ability to elicit a performance. “Mr. Holmes” is beautiful to look at. The costumes, the sets, and the landscapes offered by Condon and company ground the viewer in this reality and these time periods. It is small and intimate and fully draws one in.
“Mr. Holmes” is opening in limited release today, July 17th, and I urge you to seek it out. It is a beautifully acted, beautifully directed, and clearly the work of many individuals all at the top of their game.
photo credit: Roadside Attractions/Miramax