Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

By Ben Gruchow

July 22, 2015

Look out! He's wearing his murder gloves.

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Mr. Holmes tells a slight but engaging mystery that acts as a cover for a much more interesting story about isolation and abandonment. Having explored this deeper story for the first two acts, the film takes a left turn into a needless plot development in the third, one that allows a good amount of the energy and tension of the story to dissipate. It is a good film that could have been a great one. Still, the gentle humanism on display - mixed with a deftness of touch by director Bill Condon - is something, and we can be grateful for a quietly assured work of craftsmanship this summer.

Much of the film’s success rests on two performances, one good and one great. Ian McKellen plays Detective Sherlock Holmes, known by name from novels and screen appearances, now long past retirement age and driven to write his own story to rectify what he sees as excessive creative license. This is the good performance. With the aid of some minor makeup effects, McKellen convincingly plays subtle shades of Holmes across three different time periods. His performance in the first two time periods - 1930s London and post-Hiroshima Japan - is what you would expect out of him: studied, eloquent, perceptive.


Condon directs from a screenplay written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based off of the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. Hatcher’s background is in theater, and the filmed result bears the fingerprints of the writer in its theatrical staging (most of the present-day material takes place in a remote house, and most of that within two rooms), and the director in its unhurried, almost stately rhythm, with a respectable and even laudable directness in presenting both incident and motivation. Condon’s skill with creating an identity for his films while avoiding fussiness can’t be denied; the downside of this directness is that the story tends to just move from point A to point B, rather than build or tighten or tense up. Carefully anonymous cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler, creating an authentic and lovely cinematic environment out of coastal Sussex and 1930s London without ever really framing a scene or shot that sticks in the memory, aids in both the upsides and downsides of what Condon has put across here.

Against this backdrop, we have a third performance by the 76-year-old McKellen as a 93-year-old Holmes in the present day, one that is startling in its technical authenticity without being much more than a performance. This is not to say that McKellen coasts in this aspect; nothing could be farther from the truth. He acts the living hell out of a role that is written to communicate certain feelings at certain intervals, but doesn’t develop much beyond that. There’s a moment in the film where the 93-year-old Holmes declares that he doesn’t remember a key part of his past. The line is simple and well-delivered, but unnecessary with an actor as expressive as McKellen. This kind of delivery is completely a byproduct of a theatrical sensibility, and (given the same actor and story) would work like gangbusters on the stage. It’s overselling it on the screen.

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