Mr. Holmes

In the middle of Bill Condon's erratic career, which has veered from Dreamgirls to Kinsey to the last two Twilight movies to the Oscar bait misfire The Fifth Estate, the director reunites with Ian McKellen for a sort of bookend to his 1998 entry Gods and Monsters, the film that put both men on Hollywood's A-list.

Like Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes is a low-budget period piece about a brilliant but troubled old man. Unlike Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes is a biopic about a fictional character: Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), who by the late 1940s is a retired nonagenarian more interested in beekeeping than in solving mysteries. Long having departed 221b Baker Street for a country cottage populated only by his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son (Milo Parker), Holmes bonds with the boy while rummaging through his own fading memories of a long-ago mystery that he'd forgotten to solve – or maybe he'd just forgotten how it was solved?

Mr. Holmes is such a modest, Masterpiece Theatre-ish piece that I'm surprised it was released theatrically. (Its relative success at the box office is a reminder that older audiences still like going out to the movies.) But as a chamber drama, infused with a sense of loss and of course employing a bit of elementary deduction, it quietly satisfies.

There are issues: I love Laura Linney (incidentally, a Masterpiece Theatre host) but she is frankly miscast as a dowdy English widow. And a scene in which Holmes watches a 1940s Sherlock Holmes movie – Mr. Holmes presents the character as a real-life detective whose exploits were fictionalized for the masses by Dr. Watson – stands out for its cluelessness about what 1940s movies actually looked like. (It's staged like a 1980s soap opera parody of a 1940s movie.) But this film is first and foremost a character study, and as a showcase for the prodigious talents of Ian McKellen, it certainly delivers. If you're a fan of the actor, don't miss it. Everyone else can watch it on PBS with Granny.