The intriguing premise of “Mr. Holmes,” set mostly in 1947, outstrips its achievement, but it’s worth seeing anyway for its marvelous central performance. As the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes, retired to Dover on the southeast coast of England, Ian McKellen (in his mid-70s) gives one of the most lived-in portrayals of old age I’ve ever seen in the movies. Actually, he also plays Holmes here as a 63-year-old, in flashbacks, and McKellan’s then-and-now contrasts, the way his language and his body language change, are hallmarks of the actor’s art.
Holmes’s sidekick, Dr. Watson, has died, and the great detective, who chafed at the mythology that had built up around him, is living out his days struggling to write about the circumstances of an unsolved case that sent him into retirement 30 years earlier. After an unsatisfactory trip to Japan to track down a medicinal herb he hopes will allay his dementia, he befriends (in his gruff way) the young son (the very good Milo Parker) of his gruffly dutiful housekeeper (a semi-wasted Laura Linney). “Exceptional children are often the product of unremarkable parents,” he intones.
The script by Jeffrey Hatcher is overburdened with plot complications, but Bill Condon, who worked with McKellan on “Gods and Monsters,” has a real affinity for this actor’s capabilities. He brings out his best. Grade: B (Rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images, and incidental smoking.)