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Sherlock Holmes has staying power. Originally introduced in short story form, Holmes has been a pop culture staple since 1887. Since then he’s spanned every conceivable medium. From novels to plays to video games, Sherlock Holmes gets around. In his latest adventure, Mr. Holmes, director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) paints a slow yet soulful portrait of a man, his work and the case that got away.
Mr. Holmes is broken up into two intersecting stories: a retired Holmes dealing with his failing mental faculties and the case that caused him to hang up his magnifying glass in the first place. The sleuthing bits are classic Sherlock. Watching the master detective figure people out via the tiniest details is satisfying, even though the central case is lightweight fare. As younger Holmes, Ian McKellen carries himself with all of the dignity and English grace we’ve come to expect from the character.
But that’s only about a third of the movie. The rest of the picture is serious character drama about a genius slipping into senility. This is where McKellen shines brightest. Balancing the frustration of a faltering memory and his zeal to put the pain of his final case to bed, McKellen toes the line between frailty and fortitude with unmatched skill.
Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom. Frustrated by the oft cantankerous detective, Holmes’ housekeeper (Laura Linney) injects snark and edge to the picture. Even Holmes himself shows flashes of wit and humor in the midst of his personal struggle.
The best bits are when Holmes interacts with young Roger, his housekeeper’s young son. The pair develops a real and powerful kinship: Roger becomes fascinated by the famous detective and Holmes discovers the son he never had. This relationship is the heart of the story and creates themes of legacy, life purpose and eventual redemption.
Longtime fans will find lots to love in the little touches. Comments about Watson’s fictional stories and Holmes’ disdain for the clichéd pipe and deerstalker flesh out the character. Much of his retirement motivation is to set the record straight on Watson’s exaggerated account of his final case, making the fictional character feel more real than in any modern version to date.
Sherlock Holmes is well worn territory but Mr. Holmes manages to feel fresh thanks to a stirring story of life, death and personal redemption. While you won’t find Robert Downey Jr’s slow motion kung fu or Dr. Watson’s witty remarks, Sir Ian McKellen’s remarkable performance is a throw back to a slower, simpler time. A powerfully told, wonderfully acted winner.
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Sir Ian McKellen plays the famous detective with class, skill and devastating honesty. The relationship between Holmes and his young friend feel real and genuine. The often heartbreaking themes of life, death and legacy are well explored.
The pacing is borderline plodding. Holmes' final case is weak and a bit linear (although that's not the focus of the film).