The British have perfected a certain kind of movie. They are tasteful, well-wrought, polite, but utterly unexciting. At best they are charming due to their cast – The King’s Speech comes to mind, which mainly works because of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush – but at worst they’re lukewarm and somewhat boring, expecting nothing from their audiences and going out of their way not to challenge them.
Mr Holmes is a prime example of such a film. It’s nicely shot, the script is well crafted and inoffensive, it all smacks of a certain middle-of-the-road blandness. Unless you’re into bucolic idylls, there is little about the movie that is memorable – with one major caveat: the central performance by Ian McKellen is a thing of beauty.
I generally enjoy McKellen, but the films I’ve seen him in tend to typecast him somewhat: the usual McKellen part is that of an older, rather magisterial man with a more or less concealed edge. Sometimes he’s more jovial – see Gandalf -, sometimes he’s more dangerous – cf. Magneto -, but those are often the two poles he can be found in between. For the first half hour or so, his ageing Sherlock Holmes seems an amalgam of those two iconic genre characters, but the more Holmes loses his grip on his memory, the more McKellen’s performance gains in nuance, with echoes of his great stage performance in Waiting for Godot.
As is usually the case in those well-wrought British films, the other performances are also good, although Laura Linney’s suffers from a distracting accent and a tendency towards what I’d call Linneyisms (she often falls back onto the thin-lipped mix of long-suffering resolve and resignation that is common to many of her parts). Milo Parker is also very good, if also somewhat distracting because of his uncanny similarity to a young Thomas Brodie-Sangster (do they clone these somewhere in a secret lab at Pinewood Studios?), and Hiroyuki Sanada makes the best of an underwritten part. Nevertheless, Mr Holmes is very much McKellen’s film, and if it is remembered it will be for his moving depiction of a man who has always lived the intellectual life slowly losing his mental faculties to old age. It is impossible to come away from Mr Holmes unimpressed by the performance that is its heart and soul – but I also find it impossible not to wish that McKellen will get the chance to put in a similarly brilliant performance in a film that doesn’t prioritise politeness and good taste above substance. Mr Holmes is a solid example of the craft, but nothing more than that; McKellen’s acting deserves something better.