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McKellen plays ‘Mr. Holmes’ like you’ve never seen him

The Columbian
Published: July 17, 2015, 12:00am

With Robert Downey Jr. making him a skull-cracking action hero on the big screen and Benedict Cumberbatch making him a high-functioning sociopath on TV, what sort of Sherlock Holmes yarn can add fresh story material? How about Ian McKellen playing the immortal character as we’ve never seen him before?

The Sherlock we meet in “Mr. Holmes” is a man of growing frailties, gently portrayed. Well into the dusk of his life at 93, his recollection has declined worryingly. The long-retired consulting detective also dislikes the fame thrust upon him by Dr. Watson, whose largely unreal stories, he said, “made me into a fiction.” He never occupied 221B Baker St. (a myth “to mislead the curious”), disdains the famous deerstalker cap and didn’t own a curved pipe (he smokes cigars). “If I ever write a story myself,” McKellen’s true Sherlock complains, “it will be to correct millions of misconceptions created by his imaginative license.”

Now he lives far from London in a rustic home on the cliffs above the English Channel. He devotes his reclusive days to beekeeping, negotiating with his irascible housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and entertaining her young son Roger (delightful child actor Milo Parker). Now, in 1947, he has outlived his own life story. When the inquisitive Holmes visits a movie theater to catch a cloak-and-dagger Sherlock film, the melodrama annoys him. Sherlock (played by Nicholas Rowe, who in 1985 had the lead in “Young Sherlock Holmes”) receives a hokey performance that prompts a sigh from Mr. Holmes. When he leaves he does not encounter a single city street covered in fog.

Directed by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters,” “Kinsey” and “Dreamgirls”) from a script he co-wrote with Jeffrey Hatcher, “Mr. Holmes” recalls an earlier film about the downward spiral of memory loss, the Oscar-winning “Still Alice.” The aging Holmes, no longer so skillful at solving puzzles, works to re-evaluate secrets within his own life and his place in the world.

McKellen, who gets under the skin of every character he plays, takes Sherlock in new directions. The Holmes he creates is brusquely direct, but not the icy logical thinker we met often before.