Three stars (out of four)
PG (thematic elements, some disturbing images, incidental smoking)
For Antelope Valley moviegoers, the film will continue playing through next week at the BLVD Cinemas in Lancaster.
Few literary figures have existed in as many incarnations as the world’s most famous detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the shrewd solver of mysteries to readers in 1887. One hundred and twenty eight years later, Holmes retains a tenacious grip on our imaginations.
Benedict Cumberbatch is celebrated for his antisocial portrayal of the detective for the BBC, while Jonny Lee Miller plays a contemporary, post-rehab version of the character, opposite Lucy Liu as Watson, on the American series “Elementary.”
Meanwhile, there is apparently a third movie in the works to cap off director Guy Ritchie’s franchise featuring a manic Robert Downey Jr. as a Holmes engaged in comedic bromance with Jude Law’s Watson.
On television and in film, Holmes has appeared in countless variations, from iconic portrayals by Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett to Steven Spielberg’s “Young Sherlock Holmes.” He’s been played by the likes of John Cleese, Jeremy Irons, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Rupert Everett, Buster Keaton, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cushing and John Barrymore.
So this brings us to the question: Is it possible to bring anything new to the great Holmesian universe created by Conan Doyle more than a century ago?
Hasn’t it all been done? Is it finally time for Holmes to hang up the old deerstalker?
The answer is “no,” judging by the detective’s most recent exploits in director Bill Condon’s thoughtful, surprising, exquisitely acted drama, “Mr. Holmes.”
Of course, it is an immense advantage that the famous investigator is played by Ian McKellen, who has made it his specialty to capture the volatile, enigmatic essence of men with keen minds and hidden demons.
At 76, the actor is at the height of his powers, and his seemingly contradictory gift of communicating playful, twinkly eyed wit alongside brooding cantankerousness is perfectly suited to a role this intimidating and irresistible.
McKellen, Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (“The Duchess,” “Stage Beauty”) present to us a very different Holmes than the one we are familiar with. Gone are the instantly recognizable hat and coat, the pipe, the violin, the Baker Street address.
There is no sign of Dr. Watson or Mrs. Hughes, and there will be no disguises or uttering of such signature catchphrases as, “It’s elementary!” or “The game is afoot.”
Instead, we meet Holmes in retirement, sequestered in a picturesque but solitary cottage on the Sussex Coast, where he tends bees instead of solving riddles. The sunniness of the setting boldly belies the stereotypical image of a fretful figure peering from an upstairs window on a fog-bound London street.
It’s just after World War II and the former detective has returned from a secretive errand in Japan to the company of his begrudging housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her curious son, Roger (Milo Parker). (Both McKellen’s co-stars are excellent.)
Holmes likes to keep to himself, but Roger is fascinated by the cloistered celebrity who bears little resemblance to the sensational portrait depicted in a series of popular novels by his longtime companion, Dr. Watson.
When the detective catches the boy snooping in his upstairs study, an awkward friendship is sparked as Roger tries to coax the details of an unfinished manuscript from the reluctant Holmes, whose memory is showing signs of the disorienting illness then known only as “senility.”
Condon previously directed McKellen in the intriguing 1998 drama “Gods and Monsters,” earning the actor an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of horror movie director James Whale.
Watching “Mr. Holmes,” you’d never know he was also the director of the musical “Dreamgirls” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” Parts 1 and 2. This latest film certainly marks a return to a more subtle form of cinema.
With the patience and discipline of a painter, Condon slowly and delicately — too slowly for some tastes, perhaps — applies layer upon layer of mystery, gradually revealing an emotional landscape as lovely as it is bittersweet.
One layer tantalizes us with the reason for Holmes’ self-imposed exile to Sussex, while another teases us with the explanation to his surreptitious quest to find a rare Japanese plant. Still yet another tempts us with the true story behind the detective’s final case, involving a haunting, grief-stricken young mother (Hattie Morahan) who dresses all in gray.
The film’s cunning structure actually allows McKellen to dazzle us with two versions of Holmes, the regretful, deteriorating old man and the younger, more debonair detective, glimpsed in flashback on the case of the “woman with the dove-grey glove.”
“Mr. Holmes” is at its best when Condon cleverly plays with ideas of legend and the divide between fact and fiction. The film’s most priceless moment occurs when Holmes sneaks off to the cinema to watch a fictional, black-and-white version of himself on screen. That actor just happens to be played by “Young Sherlock Holmes” star Nicholas Rowe.
Condon and McKellen have weightier things on the brain as well, heavy ruminations on mortality, loss, missed opportunity and memory, but the movie ends on an uplifting note with an idea especially pleasing to lovers of stories.
Facts and logic have their place but sometimes what life calls for is fiction.