Directed by Bill Condon
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, from a novel by Mitch Culling, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan
If you were asked to list the top actors working today, Ian McKellen would be high on the list. He’s not only a brilliant actor, but he’s been a star in movies, TV, and on the stage.* And though he’s best known for his blockbuster and franchise films, he’s just as willing to take a role in a small movie. Mr. Holmes deals with a franchise character on a human scale, and McKellen is superb.
The film is set in 1947. Sherlock Holmes is 93 and retired, raising bees.** He lives in a farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Monroe (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes has been moved to write about his final case, but has a problem – his memory is failing. He has just returned from Japan for a natural remedy that he thinks might help, but it’s not doing him much good. However, talking with Roger, who Holmes grows fond of, he begins to remember the details of the case, where a woman (Hattie Morahan) seems to be planning to murder her husband.
The two stories unfold gently, in small doses, as we see the relationship between Roger and Sherlock grow while flashing back to thirty years earlier as the case takes shape. There is also a subplot about a Japanese admirer, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose father had moved to the UK to meet Holmes. The three stories complement each other and connect in many ways.
It’s a given that McKellen is brilliant. His Holmes is far deeper than most characterizations, and the frustration he feels at his failing memory is so very real. Milo Parker does an excellent job, too, able to keep up with McKellen’s decades of skill.
Director Bill Condon probably liked to go back to a more serious minded film after doing two films of The Twilight Saga. He and McKellen has worked together on Gods and Monsters, another small film that showcased top notch acting and an unusual story.
The movie got good reviews, and was a useful anodyne to the summer blockbusters that year (it came out in July). But it was buried by later released at Oscar time and McKellen was not nominated.
If you like Holmes or McKellen, or a story with real emotional depth, this is a movie to seek out.
*I was lucky enough to see him live on Broadway with Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (run in repertory with Waiting for Godot). It’s a play that requires top notch actors to succeed. Luckily . . .