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Movie Review: 'Mr. Holmes'

Ian McKellen is terrific as the aging sleuth, but is it worth your time?

Review by Matt Cummings

With so much Sherlock Holmes in our lives today, the central question behind Sir Ian McKellen's latest Mr. Holmes is this: do audiences want to see a Sherlock Holmes near the end of his life? While that answer will play out in the theaters, its slow burn and story holes might ultimately keep people away that were expecting the Robert Downey Jr version.

Thirty years after retiring from solving crimes, the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes (McKellen) has left urban London to settle at the seaside Kent. But the heroic sleuth is not well: hampered by growing dementia, Holmes is also haunted by his last case, in which a young husband's concerns of infidelity led to something far worse. As Holmes struggles to recount the event for a book he's writing, he must deal with the frosty Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her bright Holmes-like son Roger (Milo Parker) who manage the Kent estate. With Roger in tow, Holmes must recount the real happenings behind his last case, before age and senility catch up with him.

This is a very different Sherlock from the Cumberbatch and RDJ versions: McKellen's sleuth is pensive, apprehensive, feeble. Those are words that some won't be able to equate with the character, but it's not the reduced state of Holmes that keeps it from succeeding. McKellen is terrific, imbuing his version with both refined style and frightening mortality. His is the Sherlock at the end of the journey, and McKellen executes the roadmap to Oscar-worthy perfection. Parker is another refreshing young actor who keeps the story from becoming too dark, his personality jumping off the screen from the moment we meet him. We've been treated to some fine performances this year by young people, and Parker could stand at the top of them. Linney does well enough, but I was left wanting more; perhaps it's the extraordinary chemistry of Parker and McKellen that makes hers look fairly pedestrian. Perhaps without them I would have appreciated her performance more.

Together with Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, Director Gary Condon shoots a beautiful film, complete with sweeping vistas and authentic-looking Victorian cities and costumes that should land Designer Keith Madden an Oscar nod. The only concern I experienced was the pacing, courtesy of Writer Mitch Cullin's reworking of his novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. Even at only 104 minutes, there's a little too much fat left on the meat that drags on Jeffrey Hatcher's script. Several scenes are too long and a key scene in the hospital is rushed. Considering the almost rapacious relationship between Holmes and Munro, their resolution is a sudden stop instead of a gentle glide. A series of look-backs to 1917's Japan simply do not work and feel like a completely separate story that gets shoehorned in. Other elements are also hard to fathom, with Holmes' 30-year reclusiveness among them. He's a problem solver, a man who admits that he must be doing something, lest he feels unwanted. And yet, that's all the sleuth had done prior to his exodus to Kent. It's an odd sensation to experience a film that works so well on so many levels, yet suffers in areas you wouldn't expect.

Mr. Holmes is a textbook independent film, and perhaps that's the problem. If the slow-burn character studies of arthouse films are your thing, I recommend it. But this is neither a frenetically-paced action thriller nor particularly well-done character story with a surprising twist. Audiences expecting anything more will be immeasurably disappointed. Yet, don't be surprised to see a couple of Oscar noms come February; it certainly features several noteworthy examples.

Mr. Holmes is rated a refreshing PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking and has a runtime of 104 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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