In the opening scenes of McKellen: Playing The Part, the great British thespian, Sir Ian McKellen – a longtime veteran of both stage and screen – admits that he sees interviews as another form of performance. At first, it’s disconcerting, as this whole documentary is based around a sit-down chat with the man himself. Does this mean that the viewer is in for a kind of cinematic sham, whereby McKellen acts rather than reveals himself? There is, however, no need for concern, for while McKellen is undoubtedly “on” – his majestic phrasing, heavily pregnant pauses, and inherent sense of drama are seemingly in-built after decades treading the boards – he is also at his most revealing, open, and honest. In McKellen: Playing The Part, the viewer feels as if they are there in the room with the veteran actor as he reminisces over his fascinating life and career.
Spinning his film outwards from McKellen’s remembrances, director, Joe Stephenson eschews the usual tropes of documentary biopics. There are no interviews with fellow actors, no tear-flecked chats with family members, no woozy recollections from directors or collaborators, and very few film clips. Sir Ian McKellen is the whole show here, but he’s certainly big enough to fill the screen. A series of artful, impressionistic, stylishly tailored black-and-white re-enactments (with McKellen’s Mr. Holmes co-star, Milo Parker, as the actor’s childhood self, and Scott Chambers as the young adult version) add effectively to the atmosphere, while there are a number of stunning grace notes, the most unforgettable being McKellen’s heartbreaking recollection of the premature passing of his mother. His growing up gay is discussed in great, candid detail, as are his philosophies about activism and acting, which McKellen largely does to make people happy.
While a treasure trove for those seeking insight into both McKellen’s psyche and the great institution of British theatre, those hoping for bundles of amusing anecdotes about the actor’s most famous mainstream work – namely the Lord Of The Rings and X-Men films – will likely be mildly disappointed. But McKellen: Playing The Part is a bigger, weightier affair than that. Endlessly fascinating and well crafted, this burrows deep into the mind of its subject, and the craft of acting itself.
If you squint, you could probably picture the subject matter of The Cleaners setting the scene for a ‘60s Western. Within the first five minutes the big players are introduced: The government (Google) rules the planes, led by a few leading lawmakers (Executives). The common people (Users) are occasionally terrorised by evil outlaws (Who look just like us…), only to be saved by a group of heroes or vigilantes (The Cleaners). These heroes only have one purpose – to protect the innocent and serve justice to the perpetrators.
The problem is, the moderators in The Cleaners aren’t the same clear-cut band of vigilantes that you might see in, say, The Magnificent Seven. Given a strict set of guidelines and little to no context per case, the decisions made by these ‘internet police’ could be construed as unjust, censorship or promoting of hate speech and violence. The Cleaners sets out to explore this while also discussing the potentially devastating mental effects that such a job can have on its workers. ‘It’s slowly penetrating my brain…’ one says. ‘I need to stop. There’s something wrong happening.’
The Cleaners explores the darkest corners of the web while juggling the ethical implications of censorship on art, culture and politics. With so much content to discuss, the documentary does a commendable job at covering all bases. The Cleaners also does well to establish the dramatic contrast between how social media is presented by corporate execs and what actually goes on behind the scenes, occasionally cutting back to court cases which represent the legal side to internet exploitation. In the process however, the human side to The Cleaners is occasionally lost. Much like the cleaners themselves, the real emotion behind the documentary seems to be hidden somewhere behind its neutral facade. This is not aided by the fact that much of the content that distresses the moderators is not shown on camera.
The Cleaners is well produced, and the graphics littered throughout add to the overall aesthetic of the film. It comprehensively tackles controversial topics and provides food for thought, especially regarding the sacrifice made by so many moderators to keep the internet a safer place. It is an eye-opening experience, but one that could have perhaps been handled with a little more humanity.