Note: this review is featured on Luminary Daily

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Ian McKellen provides a more subtle, less stately Sherlock Holmes in the low-key, quite enjoyable Mr. Holmes. Director Bill Condon’s film navigates the world of the aged detective as if Watson was the catalyst for Holmes’ later years, in that Watson was the primary novelist who told of his embellished stories and heightened adventures. Holmes now lives in the countryside under the protection of a housekeeper and her son, the latter of whom strikes a strong bond with the grandfatherly figure. But the film is primarily concerned with analyzing just how Holmes’ mind is deteriorating in front of him, and the glimpses of true ingenuity he had back in the day (and today, when his brain allows him). It’s an old-fashioned film with the intuition to tell a sadly familiar tale for those who have suffered from Alzheimer’s, whether that be the ones around the victim or the person themselves. Writers Mitch Cullin and Jeffrey Hatcher fill the film with quiet emotion, strong mystery surrounding the case that drives the narrative, and bring the most out of their excellent performers.

The story follows the titular detective (Ian McKellen) at a considerably old age, nearing the end of his life. He often forgets important details of his past that could help him understand future crimes, and he can never seem to rely on himself physically or mentally. But he always tends to his bees and their honeycombs, a much-needed anchor in his life. His caretaker, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), joins him on the English countryside with her son, Roger (Milo Parker), in order to help him live comfortably. Holmes never seems to care for Mrs. Munro, remarking that her food is vile and generally treating her with disdain. It makes Holmes a largely unlikable man in his present self, but the film is driven by flashbacks to his younger days after he had become infamous from Watson’s writings. Many believed that Holmes always wore the traditionally defining garb: the deerstalker hat, the long pipe, and the flowing overcoat. But he was really just a nicely dressed individual who had an incredible knack for psychologically predicting how people would behave. That made him a great detective, even if most of his work later in his years involved infidelity investigations.

But one case stuck with him, where a man believed his wife was cheating on him when she was simply seeing a woman who was helping her pursue her musical craft. Yet the story unwinds and there are far more details that point toward misbehavior, notably from the secretive wife. That forms the backing of Holmes’ thinking as he cannot seem to remember the important details that will help him close the investigation in his mind once and for all. McKellen is sublime in the role, occupying the shoes far less flamboyantly than his most recent film predecessor (Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s two blockbusters). At age 76, he continues to turn out terrific work in roles that generally ask him to be the emotional current of the film; in big-budget fare, that means Gandalf or Magneto, but he’s an actor with extensive stage experience that can carry a film on his own. He practically does that here, with Linney being pushed to minor supporting work that has glimpses of her real talent. The bond that Holmes forms with Roger is the emotional punch, and it works, notably in the film’s “whodunit?” conclusion. Mr. Holmes is minor work, nothing revelatory, but it’s exceptionally well told.

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

Written by Eric Forthun