Thirty-five years after retiring from his career as the literary world's most illustrious sleuth, a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) spends his twilight years keeping bees in a remote country house overlooking the White Cliffs of Dover. It's 1947 and World War II is over, but its wounds are still fresh. Mr. Holmes keeps an arm’s distance from his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), but can’t resist the intellectual curiosity of her energetic 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). Perhaps Roger is fated to become a detective.
Such is the set-up for director Bill Condon’s version of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel (“A Slight Trick of the Mind”). Condon, who directed McKellen in the Oscar-winning “Gods and Monsters,” correctly keeps the focus on his main character.
Missing are most of the famous affectations that we associate with Sherlock Holmes. It’s revealed that Sherlock smoked cigars rather than a pipe and wore a top hat rather than the deerstalker cap written about in novels, which Mr. Holmes attributes to his deceased partner John Watson as the books’ author.
The old man does, however, walk with a cane. The ravages of senility are taking a toll on Holmes’s memory in spite of brain-healing experiments with Royal Jelly and Prickly Ash, a citrus shrub he has recently traveled to Japan to procure. Reminded of the last case he worked on, the one that sent him into retirement, Holmes now searches his memory for what he did wrong. His is a personal journey of closure.
Roger peppers his elderly mentor with questions about the case, which involved a distressed husband’s attempts to discover the truth about his depressed wife’s activities with a suspicious woman who teaches her to play a glass harmonica. Forgery and poison play into the mystery.
Surprisingly, the usually reliable Laura Linney is off her game, or more accurately miscast, in a role that could have been elevated in the hands of a capable British actress; think Marion Bailey (“Mr. Turner”). Aside from her wandering accent, Linney falls short during a particularly emotional sequence that doesn’t quite gel.
Of all the actors who have played Sherlock Holmes on the screen over the many decades since the first silent-era adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character in 1916, Ian McKellen’s incarnation of the fictional London detective will go down in history as the most enjoyable. At 76 the infinitely gifted actor has aged like a fine wine.
Even if “Mr. Holmes” is not much more than a picturesque showcase for the actor to mesmerize us once again, that is enough. So perfect are McKellen’s tender gestures and graceful expressions that regardless of this film’s less-than-ideal narrative aspects, we are rapt with delight at the privilege of witnessing his performance. There’s an old expression that one could listen to a gifted actor “read from a phone book” because he or she is so talented. Certainly, that is the case with Ian McKellen.
Rated PG. 104 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
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