McKellan: Playing the Part
Director Joe Stephenson’s biographical documentary McKellen: Playing the Part is a fascinating insight into the life and work of veteran actor Sir Ian McKellen, from his childhood in Wigan and 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 this intimate film allows us to get to know the man behind Gandalf, his ambitions, hopes and regrets – everything laid bare in this very human story.
With the majority of the feature directly narrated by McKellen sitting in an armchair, much of the enjoyment of the documentary comes from just listening to him talk. Despite the performer’s opening comments that he’s always playing a different version of himself in interviews, his ability to recall anecdotes of his life and provide droplets of wisdom that only someone who has truly lived can do generates a 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. Whether these were points too upsetting for McKellen to divulge on camera or whether they were cut from the film out of courtesy is unknown, but what is certain is that the weight of these incomplete tales will hang over viewers.
Alongside the actual interview, the movie is composed of various parts of archive 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, the brief fourth-wall-breaking 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 aesthetics alone.
Perhaps that’s the best way to encapsulate McKellen: Playing the Part: it is about having fun with the man himself as he recollects the events that made him who he has become. The actor may have played dozens of parts in his life, but here he’s just playing himself.
McKellan: Playing the Part is released in select cinemas on 27th May 2018.
Watch the trailer for McKellan: Playing the Part here: