“I look like I’ve been attacked by the hound of the Baskervilles,” says Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), after a tumble from his bed — one of the more thrilling action sequences in Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes”. It finds the great detective aged 93, retired to a cottage on the Sussex coast, fighting off senility with herbal remedies from Japan, etching the name of his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son onto his cuff. His most pressing mystery is a series of deaths among the bee population whose hive he tends at the bottom of his garden; that, and a nagging sense of guilt left over from his last case. “I must have done something terrible,” he says. “I just can’t remember what it is.” It’s a neat, if cruel, idea: take Conan Doyle’s paragon of proud intellect and deny him his faculties.
“Mr. Holmes” approximates the cosy contours of the biopic — there are choo-choo trains, Bentleys, starched collars and walled gardens — except, of course, that Holmes is fictional. This lends the movie some acuity as an act of literary deconstruction. In place of the deerstalker and pipe, we get a top hat and cigar; the books are disdained as “penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style” by Holmes, who, for an afternoon’s amusement, sits in the cinema, scoffing at the films made of his adventures. Even better is the small, furtive glance McKellen gives around the cinema, post-scoff, to check he hasn’t drawn attention to himself — a lovely touch of scampishness in which his isolation can nevertheless be felt. This Holmes is selfish, boyish, privately panicked, sometimes cruel, each note played by McKellen with invisible fingers — the maestro barely touching the keys.
His screen career, like many a great Shakespearean’s, has been intermittent and late-breaking. Olivier and Burton made it as young men, but mostly Hollywood prefers to let British thespians simmer in their own juices until such time as they can be “discovered” in middle age. Just add the right role and stir.
McKellen was a striking beauty as a young man, somewhere between the pouty impudence of Keith Richards and the low-lidded sultriness of Charlotte Rampling, but it wasn’t until 1993, when he was 54, that Hollywood perked up. He appeared in four films that year, including a small part in “Last Action Hero” as Death, come to shuffle Arnold Schwarzenegger from this mortal coil. The link with Shakespeare was not immediately apparent.
McKellen’s subsequent career has illuminated a path for RSC-trained actors in the brave new wonderland of digital special effects, where the very laws of physics seem to shimmer on command. For a voice that will give those commands the requisite authority, Hollywood usually sends for a Brit.
The natural American idiom is informal, familiar, unfancy, suspicious of pomp and circumlocution, like Will Smith in “Independence Day”, promising to “whup E.T.’s ass”. Give the role of Magneto in “X-Men”— a powerful mutant with the ability to bend magnetic fields to his will — to a guy from Queens and the result could easily descend into comedy. Ask a man who once played King Lear to lend his stentorian baritone and it’s another matter: once you’ve demanded heaven’s vault crack by sheer force of grief, then throwing a few submarines around is child’s play. And that was how McKellen portrayed him: as a bored Lecter-like machiavel, playing chess in his cell, dreaming of bigger pawns.
Best of all was his Gandalf — courtly, lanky and majestic, summoning fire from the sky one minute, soothing his hobbits the next with his bloodhound sagacity. He both anchored Peter Jackson’s trilogy and presided over it, a wizard caught up in his own spell. McKellen has never played Prospero; he hasn’t needed to. “The Lord of the Rings” had more than enough cloud-capped dream pageantry of its own.
Those who cling to their cultural hierarchies may find themselves perturbed by such eager cross-pollination, seeing it as an instance of slumming or sell-out. That was the view of Sir Alec Guinness, writing from the set of a film in suburban London in the sweltering summer of 1976. “New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable. I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread.” The movie, of course, was “Star Wars”. Little did Guinness know that his hauteur — the sense of a man out of time — was pure Kenobi. Contempt for the film you are in is no bad thing if the role you have been asked to play is that of an intergalactic hermit.
There is some of the same solitariness to McKellen’s Holmes — a man isolated by his intellect, further bereft by its departure. “I haven’t a clue!” he bellows at one point, and there is both distress and defiance in his voice, as if to say: stop pestering me with mysteries when I’ve become one myself. It’s like Hamlet saying “let bygones be bygones”.
“Mr. Holmes” doesn’t quite match the last Condon-McKellen picture, “Gods and Monsters” (1998), which struck a resonant chord between the monster-creator relationship of the Frankenstein movies and the director James Whale’s unrequited longings for his gardener. No such secret enlivens this remix, nor should it, but Watson is a notable absence. Holmes’s closest relationship is with his bees, whose honeyed sting seems to speak to something in him. “Don’t get too close,” Linney advises her son. “They don’t bite,” he insists. “I didn’t mean the bees,” she says.
Mr. Holmes opens in Britain June 19th, America July 17th