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McKellen: Playing the Part

Cast: Sir Ian McKellen
Director: Joe Stephenson
Genre: Documentary
Running Time: 91 minutes
Rated M

Sir Ian McKellen is one of the finest classical actors the world has seen but there is a man behind the stage and on-screen persona that is as interesting as his work. This documentary provides insight into that fact.
Director Joe Stephenson’s biographical documentary is told mostly in recorded interviews with the man himself, his early years are illustrated by humble beginnings and then finding his true calling at quite a young age. He is reserved in delivery but there is often a twinkle in the eye that indicates a sense of pride and stature.

We are taken through his childhood in Wigan, England, and his early acting career to his LGBTQ activism and thoughts on his twilight years. The stage and screen star is a huge figure within our cultural landscape, and the movie allows us to get to know the man behind Gandalf from Lord of the rings and Magneto from X-Men. He talks about his ambitions, hopes and regrets, everything laid bare in this very human story.

McKellen sits in his armchair; recalling anecdotes of his life and provides many pieces of wisdom that only someone who has truly lived can do. He generates warmth that compels you to absorb every syllable he has to say. Whilst many of his recollections offer poignant reflections or fond memories, there are some specific segments where no ending comes. These were probably areas in life he chose not to divulge.

Alongside the actual interview, the movie is composed of various parts of archival footage of McKellen’s theatrical and cinematic performances, as well as some photographs, which offers a tangible way for audiences to vicariously live through these moments. But where the picture relishes in itself the most is during black and white reconstructions of parts of the actor’s early life. These sequences are recalled with a knowing self-awareness, quite literally giving life to the events being described. One depiction of a stereotypically pompous Cambridge professor in particular highlights the fun to be had here. Likewise, other moments with the documentary crew, bring a spirit of community rarely seen in cinema today – again, this is utilised to illustrate a point rather than to serve the visuals alone. As the documentary ends, he is discussing his funeral plans and you really do appreciate what a treat it is to have the Oscar-award winner telling his own story in his own words.

Score: 8 out of 10