McKellen: Playing the Part

Review by Eve Jones

Directed by

Joe Stephenson

Starring

Ian McKellen

Anticipation.

A legendary actor. Let’s hope it’s not self-indulgent.

Enjoyment.

A genuinely moving portrait.

In Retrospect.

McKellen reminds us what it means to give ourselves to others through art.

A witty, whistle-stop tour through the eventful life of this British icon of stage and screen.

From Shakespeare’s Richard III to the white wizard Gandalf, British thesp Ian McKellen is known for a number of iconic roles on stage and screen. Director Joe Stephenson explores the acting legend’s personal journey from bereaved young boy to gay activist and performer in this delightful docu-portrait. Based on 14 hours of intimate interviews, McKellen is very much in charge of his personal narrative, offering a fascinating insight into not just his life, but what it means to be an actor.

The film opens with a montage of photographs taken from McKellen’s childhood, and this runs into nuanced cinematic reconstructions of key events, ie, his first encounters with acting. It seems inevitable from these stories that he would soon immerse himself into this world, and we later see him as he watches a production from backstage at his local theatre, or participates in the pitches of market stall traders. The windowboxed framing of these scenes and McKellen’s character voices dubbed over the various actors, imbues the material with a more endearing, memory-like quality.

The film does not romanticise his life; the voiceover is earnest and humble as our subject delves into tragedy and achievements alike. Footage of his journey through Cambridge University and his first foray into stage acting segues into the blockbusters where he eventually earned fame.

When it comes to acting and activism, McKellen says that he has always been, “devoted to strangers”. He reflects on life as a closeted gay man and describes his role in the Stonewall movement and the fight against Section 28, a law passed in 1988 that prohibited the ‘intentional promotion of homosexuality’ by any local authority.

McKellen is asked towards the end of the film what he thinks about most. “Death. Every day” is his matter-of-fact reply and, in part, the film feels like a product of this contemplation of impending mortality. Just as he has already planned his own theatrical memorial, this documentary feels like the actor wrapping up his story before the inevitable flurry of posthumous hagiographies.

This touching film sheds light on the life of an astounding man. Anyone who loves the arts should recognise someone here who has dedicated their life to them.

Published 26 May 2018

Tags: Ian McKellen

Anticipation.

A legendary actor. Let’s hope it’s not self-indulgent.

Enjoyment.

A genuinely moving portrait.

In Retrospect.

McKellen reminds us what it means to give ourselves to others through art.

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