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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

McKellen is bewitching as ‘Mr. Holmes’

After playing a few weeks at AMC, the Bill Condon film "Mr. Holmes" is moving to the Magic Lantern. If you haven't yet seen it, you might want to. That, at least, is the argument I make in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In his early years as a student at Cambridge, Sir Ian McKellen took to the stage the way Gandalf the Wizard takes to magic – with a talent and flair that is as natural as it is thrilling for others to witness.

Those of us who never got the opportunity to see McKellen onstage can see at least a vestige of what it might have been like in the 1982 release of McKellan’s televised performance “Acting Shakespeare,” which I remember seeing on Spokane Public Television. Based on a series of one-man shows, which McKellan performed between 1977 and 1990, it features McKellen both explaining – and then performing – scenes from such plays as “As You Like It,” “Macbeth” and “Richard III.”

Since the 1960s, McKellen has also been active in television and film, though it took nearly four decades for him to become a familiar face. And that was due to two blockbuster franchises: “X-Men,” in which he portrays the villainous Magneto, and the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films of Peter Jackson, in which he portrays Gandalf.

Now we have McKellen – all 76 years of him – cast in a small movie based on a novel by Mitch Cullin titled “A Slight Trick of the Mind.” Directed by Bill Condon, who worked with McKellen in 1998’s acclaimed film “Gods and Monsters” – which earned McKellan an Oscar nomination – this new film, titled simply “Mr. Holmes” – again gives evidence of McKellen’s ample acting skills.

The year is 1947. And we find the 93-year-old detective living on a remote farm with only a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) as companions. Having just returned from Japan, where he both witnessed the smoldering remains of a devastated Hiroshima and searched out a rare herb, Holmes occupies himself by keeping bees and by trying to re-create the one case that still plagues him with unanswered questions.

Holmes’ quest is complicated by his failing mind, which is what gives Condon’s film particular poignancy. He attempts to write about the case, hoping to capture facts that his former partner and late friend John Watson tended to embellish in the series of novels that made Holmes famous. To capture facts and, perhaps, to heal a failing mind.

Much of Condon’s film works. Young Parker is just the latest in a long line of talented British child actors. And his interplay with McKellan is smooth and unforced. Linney, though, is another story. When so many talented British actresses must have been available, why Condon chose the all-too-American Linney is a mystery that even the redoubtable Mr. Holmes couldn’t solve.

Ultimately, as the movie takes us back and forth in time – from three decades before, when Holmes works on the case of a woman recovering from not one but two miscarriages, to his recent Japan trip and the present where he is aided in his reminiscences by the capable Roger – it is McKellen whose talents are on best display.

And he doesn’t disappoint. As Holmes, Gandalf or Hamlet, McKellen never does.

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