The race for Best Actor this year already feels full and the season has not yet even begun. The big names crowding the race already include Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, Johnny Depp for Black Mass, Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl, Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel for Youth, Joseph Gordon Levitt for Snowden and/or The Walk, Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs, Tom Hank for Bridge of Spies, Tom Hardy for Legend, Michael Keaton or Mark Ruffalo from Spotlight, Jake Gyllenhaal for Southpaw, Ethan Hawke for Regression, Tobey Maguire in Pawn Sacrifice, Matt Damon in The Martian, Bradley Cooper for Adam Jones and these are just the ones we know about. There could be many more that aren’t front and center that could definitely reshape how we see the race in coming months.
Still we would be remiss if we walked by Ian McKellen’s astonishing portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes. There is virtually no buzz thus far for this great performance and the only reason for that is that everyone is aware of the impossibly crowded Best Actor race. Remember, though, many of these prospects are sight unseen films, and no one really knows how things will wind up by year’s end.
The film’s plots are soft and flimsy, and they don’t mesh as gracefully as they might, but they do serve as an adequate trellis for Mr. McKellen’s performance, which is gratifyingly but unsurprisingly wonderful. With his craggy visage and papery diction, his Holmes is a study in wry, intellectual charisma. Anachronistic as it might be, it isn’t hard to imagine Benedict Cumberbatch, the kinetic, intensely focused Sherlock of the BBC series, aging into this mellow codger. (The same can’t be said for the smirky action-hero version played by Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s tedious franchise.)
You might also detect some kinship between Holmes and Magneto, Mr. McKellen’s mutant in the “X-Men” movies, whose genius is filtered through rage and resentment. Not that Holmes is angry, though he does now and then betray a flicker of impatience. He is, however, very much a man of feeling as well as a creature of reason, and the suggestions of buried emotion that can sometimes be detected between the coolly logical lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are brought to rich life here.
The film suggests that there is much about Sherlock Holmes that his fans don’t know. Its most ingenious conceit is that the real man has grown old alongside his legend, slipping into theaters to watch movies made about his exaggerated exploits and gently correcting some of Watson’s fabrications. A long retirement has humanized him, and the specific longings and regrets chronicled in “Mr. Holmes” might constitute only a partial list.
That at least, is the tantalizing possibility implicit in Mr. McKellen’s whispered reminiscences and slow, graceful movements: that beyond the potted vignettes we are witnessing lies the untold story of a great, complex soul, a man more mysterious than any of the crimes he is supposed to have solved.
Review after review cites McKellen’s mesmerizing work as the aging and melancholy Holmes, even if the film overall is being met with less enthusiastic response. McKellen has, unbelievably, never won an Oscar. He is beloved within the industry, however, and received a standing ovation when the film screened for the Academy.
Although McKellen certainly qualifies for the “gold watch” slot we need to remember he’ll be competing with three other veterans — Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth, along with Robert Redford in Truth. Long shot or not, McKellen’s work deserves to be noted and appreciated. Whether he makes it into the winner’s circle or whether his performance becomes yet another warmly-regarded role we talk about in reflecting upon his impeccable career, one thing we know for sure: McKellen is indeed one of our very best actors whose enduring gift to the movies has yet to be recognized at the Oscars.