McKellen: Playing The Part
Sir Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Scott Chambers
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“Endlessly fascinating and well crafted, McKellen: Playing The Part burrows deep into the mind of its subject, and the craft of acting itself.”
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.