It seems preposterous to suggest that, at 76, after so much stunning work, Ian McKellen has given the performance of his career. But that’s the sense one gets when leaving “Mr. Holmes,” the gorgeous new mystery that reunites McKellen with his “Gods and Monsters” director, Bill Condon. From stage to screen, McKellen has uncannily embodied characters created by Shakespeare and Tolkien, yet he’s never quite brought such world-weary pathos to a role as he does to that of an aging Sherlock Holmes.
“Mr. Holmes” plays it straight, acknowledging the now 93-year-old sleuth as a real, retired detective, whose famed persona was built via case accounts penned and published by his late partner, Dr. John Watson. Now, Holmes is attempting to write a book of his own, haunted by a particular case involving a woman and her miscarried children, and suffering from dementia that worsens by the day. Fresh from a trip to Hiroshima where he sought out herbal remedies, Holmes is staying in a rural home in Sussex with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son (Milo Parker), who’s deftly, if somewhat unwittingly, easing himself into becoming Holmes’s successor.
From the painterly shots of sweeping gardens to the narrative’s slow, delicate burn, “Mr. Holmes” is consummately graceful, and a glorious rebound for a filmmaker who oddly, if somewhat excitingly, opted to wrap up the bumbling “Twilight” saga. The film is a paean to memory, loss and memory loss, all tied to a fictional icon made vividly realistic. McKellen playfully relishes lines that debunk common myths (Holmes never wore a deerstalker, for example), but also loses himself in moments of crushing vulnerability and regret.
Admittedly, McKellen’s performance may have more profound impact given his age, and that we’ve seen him evolve on screen for so long. There’s emotional baggage in his turn as Holmes, which is no doubt informed by the weathered experiences that every actor brings to his work. But not every actor can, or needs to be, so bare and bold and exquisite in his realization of a role. McKellen isn’t just showing us Holmes, he’s showing us himself — and, just maybe, that he’s the finest actor alive today.
Four reels out of four
Now playing at area theaters
An arrestingly photographed festival hit, “White God” starts off as a bittersweet story of a girl and her dog, and soon escalates into man versus beast war film that strives to critique humanity’s attempt to harness animals. Stray dogs revolt against a city of men, and the feral vengeance the young girl fights to maintain is like nothing you’ve seen before.
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