July 31 — August 13
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:15|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Though Ian McKellen has had a lengthy movie career (and significant film roles) prior to 1998, that was probably the year of his American “breakthrough,” with the release of Gods and Monsters, a darkly humorous biopic about film director James Whale. Much credit should go to director Bill Condon for guiding McKellen to what remains—despite a résumé that includes Nazis, wizards, and super-villains—one of his most charismatic, complex, and fascinating performances. Mr. Holmes is a welcome reunion of director and actor, with McKellen playing Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective in a meditative stage of his life. Based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, the film re-examines Sherlock Holmes not as a literary construct or a superhero but as an elderly, very intelligent man, struggling with a rapidly-diminishing memory and the challenge of living up to his somewhat “enhanced” reputation. In the conceit of the novel and the film, Sherlock is 93 years old and surveying the wreckage of WWII and the legacy of his own life. Holmes was indeed a truly brilliant detective but his exploits (and eccentricies, such as the famous deerstalker cap) have been touched up in the fictionalized stories written by his friend and tenacious chronicler John Watson. This Holmes is a celebrity who’s amused and a bit saddened by the larger-than-life public figure Watson created, an image that Holmes has occasionally tried to live up to, then shied away from. The result is a man with no real identity: who is Sherlock Holmes, really? The name no longer belongs to a human being but to an ideal of the detective-hero as pragmatic, unemotional thinking-machine, able to analyze and interpret the most insignificant physical evidence but completely oblivious to the needs of the heart. The “real” Sherlock Holmes invariably disappoints the fans he encounters. The central idea of the novel/film is intriguing: use one of the world’s most famous literary creations to comment on the disconnect between reality and celebrity image. In one of the movie’s most witty scenes, Holmes watches a Sherlock Holmes film with Nicholas Rowe assaying the part—film buffs may remember a baby-faced Rowe as the hero of 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes. The joke cuts more than one way: who is Sherlock Holmes? Today, he’s a role that dozens of actors from all over the world have played—for laughs, thrills, excitement, pathos, and ridicule. Holmes has been embodied by Basil Rathbone and Robery Downey, Jr.; Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller; Christopher Plummer and Charlton Heston; Nicol Williamson and Vasily Livanov (for Soviet television). So many compelling incarnations—does the “real” Sherlock Holmes even matter anymore? Bill Condon and Ian McKellen approach that question carefully: obviously, there’s no definitive portrait of Sherlock Holmes, though fans have their favorite interpretations. Mr. Holmes doesn’t purport to be a “real” depiction of Sherlock Holmes (as in, completely faithful to the Holmes mythology), but it’s unusual in that it examines Holmes as though he were a real person—and somewhat embarrassed and intimidated by the size of his own legend. Transformed effectively by old-age makeup created by artist Dave Elsey, McKellen doesn’t let the latex prosthetics do the work for him: he provides an unparalleled performance that gets to the soul of his character, making Holmes prideful, egocentric, waspish, and vulnerable. Viewers may be reminded of his Gods and Monsters work, where he portrayed another prickly personality who thinks of himself as a perpetual outsider but longs for human contact. Like James Whale from that film, Holmes has a loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), who doesn’t always approve of him, but recognizes his loneliness and offers sympathy and occasional tough love. Fans looking for a “Sherlock Holmes” mystery will be disappointed: the biggest case Holmes cracks is proving that some bees kept by him and Mrs. Munro’s son (Milo Parker) didn’t escape and sting a bunch of people. Despite that particularly low-stakes mystery, the movie doesn’t diminish Holmes’ deductive skills, or the success he’s had in the past. Most of the film, in fact, shows Holmes reflecting on his final case, in which he discovered that a woman suspected of planning her husband’s murder was actually planning suicide. Holmes remains troubled because he couldn’t figure out why the woman wanted to die. He could put together all the material facts of the case, but the psychological motives—the woman’s deep-seated unhappiness and despair—were beyond him. To some extent, Mr. Holmes belongs in that category of revisionist Holmes fiction that attempts to humanize the alpha-detective, pointing out his foibles and mistakes, accentuating the personal qualities that make him aggravating, obnoxious, or fumbling in romance. Condon and McKellen, however, have a genuine love and appreciation for the character; if they seek to deflate the “Sherlock Holmes myth” a little, it’s only to release the real Holmes from the purgatory of having to play-act that persona for the rest of his life. People urge him to “Do that thing”—meaning, show off your inhuman deductive prowess as regally and condescendingly as possible—and Holmes dutifully goes along, but it takes a toll. More than just a kind-hearted look at the agony of being Sherlock Holmes, the film is a sensitive depiction of old age and the fears that often accompany it: fear of losing mental sharpness, of being obsolete, of being alone and forgotten. The moody cinematography of Tobias A. Schliessler enhances the claustrophobia of Holmes’ retirement, and explains why he (and the film) frequently “escape” through the vessel of memory (and flashback). Condon uses jumps back and forth in time as effectively as he did in Gods and Monsters, providing visual parallels between the failures and triumphs of Holmes’ past and the more mundane frustrations he faces in the present. The film works at a slow boil, accumulating emotional power as Holmes gradually unlocks the one mystery that has always stymied him: the mystery of empathy. The tragedy is that, at the age of 93, Holmes may be discovering too late how to connect with people on a human level. Critic Rob Daniels, writing for Electric Shadows, notes that the two Condon-McKellen collaborations are both stories of an “exceptional man robbed of his powers through age” and rightfully praises Sir Ian’s acting as a “masterclass in geniality, superciliousness, mischievousness and sorrow.” It’s a truly exceptional performance, one that has fun with the canonical lore of the Sherlock Holmes character but emerges as a three-dimensional, affecting human being—perhaps the highest compliment one could pay is that McKellen’s Holmes doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to be interesting to us: indeed, he’s closer to us than we might think. This vision of Holmes is perhaps sadder and more tragic than many incarnations we’ve seen before, but it’s respectful of the legend and the now-frail, dying man who inspired it. The result is a surprisingly moving story that finds unexpected pathos and universal relevance in the Sherlock Holmes story.
(Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.)
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