Above all else, a movie built around a star promises presence, and in Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes, that promise is dual: Here are 104 minutes with the great Ian McKellen, for once not casting spells, controlling magnetism, or classing up script pages of expositional gobbledygook. It's not his job, this time, to explain why the dwarves are galloping rams up an ice mountain. Besides that, Mr. Holmes also offers us a playdate with a Sherlock who's been absent from this century's screens, one for whom deduction isn't a superpower/party-trick, one who spots clues you might spot too — Condon has the good taste not to reduce the great detective's thinking to a whooshing camera and quick-flash insert shots. The game's afoot, and Mr. Holmes plays fair.
But this is more elegy than game, a Sherlock Holmes at the End of Time. Based on A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mitch Cullin's fine 2005 novel, Mr. Holmes finds Sherlock in retirement, facing senility and the horrors of the 20th Century. Gently revisionist, the film and novel examine several eras of Holmes' life, focusing on three. Here, they're all played by McKellen, who has never looked so old and dithering onscreen — what a relief when Condon flashes back to a Baker Street case, and McKellen jaunts about London in top hat and tails, vigorous as Fred Astaire.
We meet Sherlock in repose, near the White Cliffs of Dover in 1947, raising bees for their royal jelly, which he believes might help steady his ailing memory. The nonagenarian lives with a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her excitable son, Roger (Milo Parker), who is eager to help with the apiary and to get some tales of adventure out of the old man. This Holmes lives in a century that's not his, but he's not giving up: He has set himself to the task of correcting the record of his life that John Watson and primitive movies have cemented in the public mind. No deerstalker caps for this chap! To that end, when not carping about the uselessness of fiction, Holmes endeavors to write the true account of his last case, a tale he says Watson got wrong. But Holmes can't remember the ending, no matter how much Roger needles him to finish.
We see that case in energetic flashbacks. A husband (Patrick Kennedy) complains that his wife (Hattie Morahan), after losing two children, has fallen under the sway of her music teacher, a somewhat shamanistic woman who is expert in the spinning glass disks of the glass armonica. The mystery here is slight but compelling, edged with sadness and cruelty but enlivened by McKellen's sprightliness and the sudden liberation of Condon's cameras. This old but unretired Holmes makes jolly sport out of trailing a troubled wife, swanning about as if he truly was the turn-of-the-century pulp hero who Watson (and Arthur Conan Doyle) insisted. Eventually, he tricks her with a bit of mystery-story theater — but then he's plunged into the gulf between real life and the fictions the older Holmes despises. McKellen's long scene with Morahan is the film's best, and not just because it's the least predictable. Morahan lays bare the hurt and real feeling that mysteries make a game of, and McKellen shows us a Holmes who shrinks away from the truth of his own loneliness. Both writing and acting are artful.
Condon's filmmaking, though, is workaday, especially in the movie's third and least convincing thread. In the 1940s, Holmes travels to Japan to meet an admirer (Hiroyuki Sanada) who promises access to prickly ash, a plant Holmes believes might best royal jelly as a memory aid. Their journey takes them to Hiroshima, here rendered quickly and without much conviction as a chintzy blackened hellscape — Holmes is shaken to his core by the sight, but what we see onscreen could be Peter Jackson's Mordor. The contrast — a fragile man confronting the horror of an age not his own — is moving in spite of these scenes, not because of them. Prickly ash has flowered in the bomb's devastation, and late in the film, a mystery also flowers in this backstory, but it — like that prickly ash — doesn't improve much.
That failing doesn't diminish what matters most, here: time with McKellen's Holmes, in good days and bad. Condon, director of Gods and Monsters and a pair of Twilight films, trusts his star, and he trusts our patience, letting scenes run long and sometimes slow. We get to watch old Holmes stumble, fume, and doze, but also light up with memory and take pleasure simply in being. McKellen is prickly and distractible, at times, but so warmly appealing that it's no stretch to believe that Roger, the kid, adores him. Linney, sadly, spends most of the movie annoyed, her Irish housekeeper character (justly) feeling put-upon by her lot in life — "Exceptional children are often the product of unremarkable parents," Holmes tells Roger, which doesn't help things. The movie is nearly over by the time Mr. Holmes finds some empathy for her. Condon, like this Holmes, can't quite keep everything in his story straight and clear, but he and his film come close just often enough.