McKellen: Playing the Part

McKELLEN: PLAYING THE PART. Starring Ian McKellen. Also, Luke Evans, Scott Chambers, Milo Parker, and Frances Barber. Directed by Joe Stephenson. Rated M (Coarse language and sexual references). 91 min.

This British documentary tells the story of Ian McKellen from childhood to adulthood in which he continues to enjoy a distinguished career as a theatre and film performer, and campaigns for equality on the world stage. The film highlights impressively a very personal journey.

The format for the film is simple. A sitting Ian McKellen is supplemented by archival footage from his works, and dramatised scenes of his childhood. The film goes back to personal diaries when McKellen was 12; offers behind-the-scenes footage of stage shows and films he has performed,  such as “Hamlet”, “King Lear”, “Richard III”, “The Lord of the Rings” and “X-Men”; and it communicates his own thoughts about the nature of acting in a life long-lived. The documentary covers about 14 hours of interview. It uses private photo albums, and shows archival footage that communicates a continuing role in the gay rights movement. His journey has been, and is, an extraordinary one.

Re-constructions of his past life are performed in the movie, and they star Luke Evans, Scott Chambers, Milo Parker, Frances Barber, and others. But McKellen’s presence is always apparent when we view them. He is played by Milo Parker as the son of middle-class parents in an English mining town, for example, but it is McKellen who defines the context for what we see and hear.

McKellen is highly self-reflective in the film. He makes the case that his yearning to fully appreciate his identity as an actor (“it took 49 years to be honest about myself”, he says) stems from his having to repress his true self as gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal and impossible to talk about. He publicly declared his gay identity at age 49, was referred to The Old Vic by a young Maggie Smith, became a rising star with Judi Dench, and after starring in Edward II and Richard III, he moved from Britain to New York’s Broadway before assuming the role of the wizard, Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings” series. The most dramatic parts of the documentary are taken from his Shakespearean performances. He is a superb Shakespearean actor with a deep, calm voice that still resonates.

An especially compelling feature of this film is the distinctive picture it provides us of an actor famous for telling stories of other people. For McKellen, “story telling is a basic human ability” and he delivers his stories with confidence and charm. He provides colour and context to what he says, and this is especially evident in his Shakespearean roles, and in his cinema interpretations of Magneto and Gandalf. At 78, he is unpretentious and down-to-earth. He seduces his audience, but clearly enjoys manipulating it. Sitting in a large, red arm-chair, his words tell his own story. Even when scenes from his performances are reconstructed by supporting players, we always know his thoughts about them.

The photography of the film successfully projects McKellen’s theatrical warmth. Fluid editing seamlessly integrates scenes from his life with his words, almost as if they are lifted from a book of private memories. The documentary basically provides us with a masterclass in acting of a man with immense talent and presence - “acting extracts the essence of the man” and “is about reviving the spirits”, he tells us. The film compellingly communicates Mckellen’s personal journey toward artistic fulfilment; it thoughtfully contrasts film with stage; and it looks back reflectively on a lifetime of acting achievements.

This is an intimate, humorous and affectionate film. Under the masterful direction of Joe Stephenson, McKellen’s “trying to affect people’s lives” is shared with us for mutual enjoyment. This is not a tell-tale autobiography, revealing scandalous things we didn’t know about people we thought we knew, but a fascinating portrayal of a famous professional actor, communicated personally and intimately by him for our enjoyment and thoughtful reflection.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Icon Films

Released September 27th., 2018