Above all else, a movie built around a star promises presence, and in Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes that promise is dual: Here's 100 or so minutes with the great Ian McKellen, for once not casting spells, controlling magnetism, or classing up script pages of expositional gobbledygook. Mr. Holmes also offers us a playdate with a Sherlock who's been absent from this century's screens, one for whom deduction isn't a superpower/party-trick -- Condon has the good taste not to reduce the great detective's thinking to a whooshing camera and quick-flash insert shots. The game's afoot, and Mr. Holmes plays fair.
But this is more elegy than game. Based on Mitch Cullin's novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mr. Holmes finds Sherlock in retirement, facing senility and the horrors of the twentieth century. Gently revisionist, the film examines several eras of Holmes's life. We meet Sherlock in repose, near the White Cliffs of Dover in 1947, raising bees for their royal jelly, which he believes might help steady his ailing memory. The nonagenarian lives with a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her excitable son, Roger (Milo Parker), who is eager to get tales of adventure out of the old man.
McKellen has never looked so old and dithering onscreen -- what a relief it is when Condon flashes back to a Baker Street case, and McKellen jaunts about London in top hat and tails, vigorous as Fred Astaire. Both writing and acting are artful, but Condon's filmmaking is workaday. Like this Sherlock, he can't quite keep everything in his story straight and clear, but the film comes close just often enough.