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Holmes, sweet Holmes. Ian McKellen’s features loom into view like the white cliffs of Dover — craggy, striated, scenic, reassuring — as the illustrious and loveable Sherlock in Mr Holmes. The actor himself seems home at last, after all that globe-gallivanting as Gandalf and cosmos-upheaving as Magneto.
The flickers of eccentricity in the film and performance only add to the cosy glow. This is a Holmes made homely. The false nose, a stab at the sleuth’s traditional aquiline, ends up looking more like Widow Twankey’s: quaint and pointy-comical. And vocally Sir Ian barely bothers with the approved clipped consonants of Rathbone or Cushing. It’s just the darling McKellen woofle, that baritonal fog, protean and voluptuous, from which titanic booms occasionally emerge like ships’ horns.
If I go on about McKellen it’s because there’s nothing else much to go on about here: the actor is the film. Without him it’s a flyweight vanity (from a novel by Mitch Cullin) about the famous fictional detective, living as if real in retirement Sussex in 1947. Succumbing gently to the nonagenarian’s thousand ills, from dodderiness to Alzheimer’s, he befriends the son (Milo Parker) of his housekeeper (America’s Laura Linney, struggling with an English yokel accent). He shares in flashback the minutiae of last unsolved cases: the ones mis-written, says Holmes, by a Watson about to decamp into marriage.
A story in Japan. A story of a mysterious beautiful Englishwoman. (Did Holmes love her?) We buzz between the past yarns and present-day beekeeping interludes in Sussex with boy and ex-Baker Street mentor. Fit hobby for a former gumshoe, you might say. Getting the shoes sticky, and the mind refilled and refuelled, with the mysteries of nature, those conundrums deeper than any.
Mr Holmes is sweet, charming and no more demanding than you want it to be. It makes a neat companion piece with director Bill Condon’s first McKellen collaboration Gods and Monsters (1998). There the actor played retired Anglo-Hollywood filmmaker James Frankenstein Whale. Gods? Monsters? Not really. Just a brace of British legends, warming their feet endearingly at the fire of folklore’s new foundry, the cinema of pop postmodernism.