Ian McKellen, Bill Condon reunite for another masterful character study
The first time most American moviegoers heard about Ian McKellen, believe it or not, was in 1998. That’s when he received his first Oscar nomination for God & Monsters, playing ageing movie director James Whale in his last days in the 1950s, as he navigates dealing with an officious housekeeper, growing senility and an intriguing young man who triggers painful memories of his past. (The movie won its writer-director, Bill Condon, an Oscar for its screenplay.)
That has been almost a lifetime — as well as countless Orcs, mutants, wizards and box-office records — ago. Now, at age 76, McKellen is one of the defining actors of his generation: A certifiable movie star, an outspoken gay-rights activist and a thespian of unparalleled skills on screen and stage. He’s in the autumn of his life and career, yet has never been more secure in his powers — as he brilliantly demonstrates in his masterful performance in Mr. Holmes.
It’s the 1950s, and McKellen plays the great sleuth Sherlock Holmes, who is treated here as an historical figure instead of a fictional creation. He hasn’t solved a mystery in decades, having retired after a disastrous outcome to his last case. But the son (Milo Parker) of his housekeeper (Laura Linney) delivers him a letter that conjures long-suppressed memories and sets him off on his final adventure.
The familiar set-up almost eerily parallels that of Gods & Monsters — retracing a life and it sunsets, searching for meaning in the pain and pointlessness of it all — so the reunion of Sir Ian and Condon, nearly 20 years after they both got put on the map, is a fitting and poignant one. This Holmes is a shadow of a man, infirm and riddled with doubts, his swagger crippled by regret. In flashbacks, he’s arrogant and precise, methodically solving a mystery about a woman who routinely disappears, much to her husband’s perturbation; in the present time, he’d addled and reclusive. And each time, McKellen is compellingly believable.
It would be difficult to over-praise this performance, which may finally win the actor an Oscar. It’s a work of great detail, from how he surreptitiously writes crib notes on his sleeves to mask his failing memory to his each quiver of his lip. And like a book by A. Conan Doyle, the mystery is an engrossing one, made more profound in this character study.
McKellen’s work fits comfortably within Condon’s construct, which recreates both Edwardian and post-War England, as well as a nuclear-ravaged Japanese landscape. In those few scenes, Condon heart-wrenchingly gives life to the duality of the story — past and present, dark and light, write and wrong, young and old.
As much of a showcase as this is for McKellen, his scenes with the talented young Milo Parker as his puppy-dog-attentive fanboy sparkle with vibrancy, and a flamboyantly funny cameo by Frances de la Tour injects moments of levity into this dark but life-affirming masterpiece.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 17, 2015.