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'Mr. Holmes' review: Ian McKellen delights as elderly sleuth

Sir Ian McKellen stars in "Mr. Holmes."

Sir Ian McKellen stars in "Mr. Holmes." Credit: TNS / Giles Keyte

Anyone who considers him or herself an unofficial Baker Street Irregular is aware that Arthur Conan Doyle's greatest invention -- Sherlock Holmes -- was a proto-modernist creature. He was well aware of the stories being written about him by Dr. Watson, which he considered amusing distractions, but they were quite beneath his dignity. According to director Bill Condon and screenwriter Mitch Cullin, 50 years and two world wars later, he wouldn't have changed his mind.

"Fiction is worthless!" declares the 93-year-old subject of "Mr. Holmes," which offers the delicious prospect of Ian McKellen playing the world's greatest detective in his decrepitude -- short of breath, mouth agape, attending his bees on the Dover coast while being attended to himself by a frumpish housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her curious young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes' latest case? Cracking his own memory: Investigations of old are evaporating from his mind; the memoir he's trying to write -- or is it, gasp, merely a story? -- is relying on an elusive train of thought he can't quite catch. This, despite his ingestion of "royal jelly" from his beehives, or the prickly ashhe brings back after a desperate trip to Japan. Holmes, master of logic, must rely on Watson's fiction to mine the truth, the nature of which is as slippery as Professor Moriarty.

McKellen is a wonder to watch -- he's playing about 20 years older than his spry young self, and looks to be enjoying it. Likewise, Condon's interweaving of Holmes' present state with the old case he's remembering only in fits and starts, and giving to the star-struck Roger in longed-for chapter by chapter (the relationship between McKellen and young Parker is magical). What Holmes comes to understand -- many decades and deductions later -- is that logic has its limits and that there is value to fiction, even fantasy, particularly as they serve as a balm to the soul.

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