Ian McKellen did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Sherlock Holmes in Mr. Holmes.
The most substantial portion of the film follows Holmes at the latest part of his life in retirement in an English cottage where he is tended to by the housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and spends time with her son Roger (Milo Parker). McKellen actually is aged up considerably in the role in terms of makeup but also through his performance. McKellen adds to this through his troubled movements, and his rather cracked voice as Holmes. He carries himself with a slow pace, and even amplifies the makeup through his often haggard expression. I was actually somewhat concerned on my first viewing that McKellen might be reducing Holmes to a crotchety old man type. This was merely through his introductory scene where he corrects his fellow train passengers that an insect in sight is in fact a wasp and not a bee. McKellen brings a considerable disdain in his voice as he states that a wasp is different creature entirely, but as the rest of the film reveals this is merely to illustrate Holmes's attitude towards wasps, and perhaps a bit of exasperation just from his long trip, rather than his normal attitude towards life. McKellen does not make Holmes a curmudgeon as he finds already some enthusiasm, though still reduced from age, when he goes about his one remaining passion in life which is tending to his bees.
An even better side of Holmes is quickly shown by McKellen when the housekeeper's son Roger inquires about one of his cases that he had been writing about. McKellen is splendid in bringing this spark of light into Holmes the moment he is asked about his old days as a detective. There is such a nice light touch of humor McKellen brings as he calmly discusses his old method of deciphering people's intention, I particularly love the quiet sense of pride McKellen shows when Roger states that the process as the thing that Holmes does. McKellen though is quite moving though as he is asked for more at the time, and portrays the sorrow in the man as he struggles with his memory. McKellen is terrific in finding this internal frustration in Holmes any moment where he must recall something, and McKellen finds this anguish to perhaps be even more considerable as Holmes was once a man made by his mind essentially. Of course this leads to what seems like an essential question on McKellen's performance, which whatever his exact approach to Sherlock Holmes is. This something always rather interesting to examine considering all the different portrayals of the detective that have been seen over the years.
McKellen even as the elderly Holmes is able to find his Sherlock Holmes so to speak. McKellen finds this exact method of the man as he keeps this observant quality about him at all times, as though he's always, just by instinct, observes carefully all those around him. McKellen in his body language and the way he speaks make this precise manner to the man who does try keep these exact movements just as he once did, and even reveals a bit of a frustration almost when his age keeps him from being exactly as he wishes he should be. McKellen does something essential for the character in that he finds basically how Holmes's views the world, which is that of the logical spectator. McKellen plays this well by allowing a cursory glance to make this appear as though this might be that of a cold man, but as we get to know Holmes through the story that's not the case. McKellen's performance keeps this needed internalization in terms of Holmes's emotions. McKellen does not make this a case of an unemotional man, rather he instead presents a man almost more comfortable keeping his distance while dealing with anything the way he is most accustom to, which is logically. McKellen shows this in almost a delay of a personal reaction at times, as though Holmes can't help but try to find the solution before even speaking of the problem.
There are a set of flashbacks throughout the film which depict Holmes's final case which involves a man who wishes Holmes to get to the bottom of his wife's strange behavior. McKellen is outstanding in finding so well the youth of the character, even though he's obviously not young still. McKellen though presents Holmes as a man absolutely still in his element as he brings such confidence and grace about the man as he goes about the case. McKellen speaks with such unquestionable authority revealing the intelligence of the man in every glance, and movement. McKellen's approach though Holmes, which I find particularly special, is the way he portrays this joy of performance. In this case not McKellen own performance, although I'd say you can see that as well, but the joy that Holmes takes in performing his duties as detective. McKellen creates the idea that Holmes is a man who's great at his job and loves doing it. In creating this idea though McKellen actually gives understanding to Holmes's somewhat closed off emotional state suggesting that satisfaction he found in his investigations was on the surface enough to seemingly have a fulfilling life. As one would expect Holmes quickly figures out the secret behind the case, and McKellen brings the expected energy you want from the typical moment where Holmes quickly deciphers each piece of evidence.
The end of the case though is Holmes discovering the woman Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) purposefully tried to string along Holmes to make it appear as though she's going to murder her husband, but naturally he figures out that she in fact plans to commit suicide. McKellen is outstanding in portraying the somberness in the man, that is hidden behind the joy he gets from his work, as he admits to his own loneliness in an attempt to convince Ann not to go through with her plan. When she offers a completely alternative plan that they deal with their loneliness together McKellen's reaction is flawless. He's heartbreaking by for once showing Holmes caught off guard and for once unable to actually decipher what is being presented to him since only an emotional, rather logical, response is possible. McKellen renders the moment beautifully as discovers such genuine pain in Holmes in his usual hesitation as it seems he could say yes, but then returns to proper detective form to simply instruct her to go back to her husband. This leaves to tragedy though when she still goes through with her plan, leaving Holmes to observe that he made the logical, yet wrong decision. There is such a poignancy McKellen finds in his expression that shows how haunted Holmes is by the mistake, and that his retirement was simply inevitable as there was no way he could find joy in that work again.
That brings us to Holmes's current life where technically he is an odd state as for much of the time since he cannot recall what even made him retire in the first place. This in no way brings his joy back fully, the fact that he failed is one thing he does remember, but he keeps that certain detachment. McKellen suggests that the old investigative joy returns in his interactions with Roger, as the boy is also fascinated by Holmes's old exploits. McKellen and Parker are charming together finding well the connection as Holmes is allowed to remember the good of his past again, though the pain seem to lie dormant. The detachment though surfaces in his interactions with Roger and his mother. There's two scenes that I especially love when Roger insults his mother, and as usual Holmes's reaction is slightly delayed by McKellen yet considerable in his dismay when it comes as he portrays such palatable passion that he never treat someone with such little regard. The other comes after Holmes has managed to recall how he failed his final investigation, and Roger has been seriously wounded by what looks like bee stings, though Holmes knows better. Holmes wishes to protect his bees, from Mrs Munro's wrath, when she calls him out on his distance, McKellen makes it a very moving moment as he shows Holmes's break down allowing the emotions rather than logic rule for once in the moment to show just how much he has cared this entire time. McKellen's work here is excellent in that he not only finds his own captivating take on the often played character, but also in creating an affecting portrait of man coming to terms with his life.