Director Bill Condon’s name isn’t one you’re likely to hear often. He’s not a particularly flashy director; his films have a sort of low-key level-headedness to them that feel entirely different from the likes of visually overreaching auteurs like a David Lynch or a Wes Anderson. Very early in his career, however, he did helm two fantastic costume dramas that both packed a surprising punch considering their calmly handsome exteriors: Kinsey and Gods & Monsters. Due mostly to their superbly talented casts, a generally pleasing visual palette, and an unusually frank take on the grey areas of human sexuality, both Kinsey and God’s & Monsters are real emotional powerhouses that subvert the low-key vibes they boast on the surface. Condon has an elegant, adult touch to his costume dramas & biopics that make them alarmingly rewatchable & lingeringly poignant in a way you wouldn’t expect considering the basic confines of their structure.
After a brief foray into the business of Twilight sequels (a venture I can only hope paid nicely), Condon is seemingly getting back to what he does best. His latest film, Mr. Holmes, brings in Ian McKellen & Laura Linney, who were both fantastic in their respective roles in God’s & Monsters and Kinsey, for yet another low-key costume drama that initially seems suspiciously run-of-the-mill, but actually packs an emotional wallop. In Mr. Holmes‘ portrayal of what is probably the world’s most famous detective (and easily the world’s most famous Sherlock) struggling to reconcile his unusually sharp observational skills with the encroaching doom of senility, Condon has found a way to add another unexpected layer of depth to a character that has become perhaps overly-familiar at this point in pop culture. Just like how the costume dramas & biopics of Condon’s past have complicated & subverted their audience’s genre expectations, Mr. Holmes plays with what you would expect out of a Sherlock Holmes movie by slowly removing the elegance & mental facilities you would expect from Holmes himself.
Of course, this is just as much Ian McKellen’s triumph as it is Condon’s. The idea of McKellen playing an aging Sherlock Holmes will obviously be a major selling point for a lot of people tuning in to this humble indie drama & Mr. Holmes does not disappoint on that end. In three separate, but narratively interwoven storylines McKellen plays the infamous gumshoe at varying times of his waning life. In some scenes he’s as keen as ever & in others he struggles to walk the short distance across his study. Unlike with traditional Sherlock narratives, the point of Mr. Holmes is not to solve the mystery of a specific crime, but for the detective to solve both the mystery of human nature & the more haunting mysteries that the daily battles with a fading mind present. As Holmes slips into senility he begins to regret his life-long dedication to facts & logic and forces himself to learn how to connect with people on a more empathetic & emotional level before he loses the ability to connect at all. McKellen can be absolutely heart-breaking in these dual struggles, his piercing blue eyes calling for help from behind an eerily aging face.
This doesn’t mean that the movie can’t be fun as well. When Holmes is having one of his “good days”, McKellen shines as a comic talent. He’s got a bitchy, effete, intellectual air to him that can make you snort with laughter with the mere roll of an eye or an off-hand joke about death. This is especially true in scenes where Holmes is interacting directly with his own celebrity, scoffing at the novelized & feature film versions of his life and poking fun at the costume he’s typically depicted wearing. It’s McKellen’s tender, but catty approach to comedy that lures you into a comfortable lull that suddenly hits you right in the heart once all three of the film’s storylines culminate in a tidy, but satisfying conclusion. Condon & McKellen (along with a top-notch performance from an always-welcome Linney) have together crafted a rare thing: the well-behaved, but emotionally potent indie costume drama with only rare visual showiness (mostly in the occasional period-specific artifact: a worn book or photograph, bee-keeping gear, an ancient glass harmonica, etc.). Mr. Holmes might not be the best or most ambitious work of either Condon or McKellen’s careers, but it is a special treat watch something so simple shine so brightly– even if it is, in Sherlock’s case at least, the last time around.