Berlinale 2015: Ian McKellen is Absolutely Wonderful in 'Mr. Holmes'
by Alex Billington
February 8, 2015
Mr. Holmes, you are a man of great wisdom. In the new movie Mr. Holmes, beloved legendary actor Ian McKellen finally gets his shot at playing the character Sherlock Holmes, but not the Sherlock Holmes we're all familiar with. Instead, he plays the "real" detective that Holmes was based on in the stories told by Dr. Watson, which are the stories told in Arthur Conan Doyle's stories (very meta but it's easy to understand). He has no hat or pipe, as those were embellishments added to the stories. Instead, he's kind of a bumbling old man, a bit disgruntled with others but has still maintained a keen intellect. This wonderful film swept me away, I fell really hard for it, to the point where I don't even know how to start I adore so much about it.
Directed by Bill Condon (of Dreamgirls, Kinsey, Gods and Monsters, The Fifth Estate), Mr. Holmes tells the story of an aging Sherlock Holmes, who moves in to a country house as his memory begins to fade just a few years after the end of World War II. In a hasty comparison, Mr. Holmes is actually a slightly better film on the struggles of memory loss than Still Alice, which also deals with how frustrating it is for a person to experience this. However it's not the main focus of the script, as there are many layers to it primarily involving the mystery of human relationships. Looking back on his life, Holmes (struggles to) remember the one case he investigated that helps him learn, and also impart, an important life lesson about relationships.
Of the many aspects I admire, the use of and inherent connection to emotion in this film is sublime. It feels full of so much life, and a love of life, even though it's about a man nearing the end of his life. The script also involves a young boy, played by Milo Parker, the son of the housekeeper where Holmes is staying, whom he befriends. The two bond over a love for bees, as they have an apiary on the grounds, and discuss them throughout seemingly as a metaphor for the importance of understanding and maintaining a balance in life. It was refreshing to see such a smart, emotionally-vibrant story that encourages an appreciation for life and never gets campy when it easily could have. It also has an enchanting score by Carter Burwell to top it off.
In addition to the story in England, there's an aspect of Japanese culture that plays an important part in the film. Holmes has recently returned from a trip to Japan, where he was invited to find some "prickly ash", or Zanthoxylum, a type of plant that helps with memory loss. The scenes in Japan, which are set right after World War II meaning the country is still in disarray and reeling from the incredible devastation incurred during the war, are surprisingly eye-opening and powerful. There are a few amazing moments of deep consideration presented during this trip, and it all ties in with his struggle to solve his life's mystery. As an avid admirer of Japan, it was beautiful to see this inclusion and honestly made me love this film even more.
Of course, I must compliment Ian McKellen because he is absolutely magnificent in this film, taking on the role with complete authority and differentiating himself (from anything he has done before) with minor quirks and physical mannerisms. He does give us a Sherlock Holmes that we have never seen before, both likable and unlikable, but still traditional and nevertheless wise. Through his charm, and the impressively conceived narrative built around emotion, this film left a strong impression on me that will likely last for a long time. I wasn't expecting to fall in love with it this much and was surprised by the complex story, but I'm not afraid to fully admit it might still be one of my favorite films by the end of the year. Yes, it's that good.
Alex's Berlinale 2015 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
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