Film review: Mr Holmes is an elementary character study of elderly Sherlock

James Luxford
McKellen gives his best performance in years
Cert PG | ★★★★☆
A century and a quarter after his literary debut, Sherlock Holmes has never been more popular. Given the renewed interest caused by two hit TV series and a Guy Ritchie movie franchise, it was only a matter of time before we got a film adaptation of A Slight Trick of The Mind, Mitch Cullin’s lauded 2005 novel about Sherlock in old age.
Sir Ian McKellen plays a 93-year-old Holmes who has retired to his home in Sussex where he tends to his bees and forges an unlikely friendship with his housekeeper’s young son (Milo Parker). Battling severe dementia, he struggles to remember his last case, and wonders – in a state of senile befuddlement – what it was that made him choose to retire.
Those used to Robert Downey Jr’s twinkly charm or Benedict Cumberbatch’s swagger will be surprised to find a more sedate affair. Set mostly in the countryside (with flashbacks to Japan and London), the plot takes its time.
Mr Holmes is more thoughtful character study than gripping murder mystery, which allows McKellen to shine in a fragile and absorbing performance. Through subtle movement and the odd stolen glance, we see the unravelling of a man whose mind was his ultimate weapon, and a vulnerable portrayal of a character so often presented as invincible. Parker is precocious but endearing as the young boy he befriends, while American character actor Laura Linney has a convincing stab at a West Country accent as Holmes’ housekeeper.
McKellen is reunited with director Bill Condon, with whom he last collaborated on 1998’s Gods and Monsters. The two films share many themes, most obviously the last days and regrets of a fading man viewed through the eyes of a younger observer. It’s a return to form for a filmmaker whose stock had dropped following the final two Twilight films and Wikileaks misfire The Fifth Estate. The quietly powerful final act is particularly well done, bringing the film’s events to a close in a moving and satisfying way.
Despite the leisurely approach to storytelling, “Mr Holmes” draws the viewer in with an intelligent story, and McKellen’s most nuanced performance in years. While stopping short of brilliance, Condon’s film is a rich and entertaining alternative to the noise of summer blockbuster season.

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