McKellen: Playing the Part




An absorbing survey of Ian McKellen's life and career by the man himself.

Mckellen Playing the Part

Sir Ian


Recently when welcoming the beguiling chat to be found in Nothing Like a Dame, I pointed out nevertheless that each of the four great actresses deserved a full-length work providing an in-depth look at her achievements. Bang on cue, we now have an almost perfect illustration of the kind of piece that I had in mind thanks to this feature about one of our best actors, Sir Ian McKellen. It begins with Sir Ian expressing doubts as to the wisdom of his agreeing to be filmed by director Joe Stephenson as he looks back and tries to sum up his life. The title links to the fact the McKellen early on expresses a view held by many but not all, namely that it is not just actors but everybody who is constantly acting out a role, selecting an image to project which may indeed be a chosen part of themselves but which means that nobody is content just to be seen simply and directly as themselves.


It is a feature of Stephenson’s film that early on he includes recreations of scenes in the life of the young McKellen with Milo Parker and Scott Chambers standing in for him. However, this is never overdone and the main emphasis visually is on extracts from McKellen’s work as seen on film and TV (the latter including clips of his theatre roles) alongside a selection of relevant newsreel shots and private photographs. But what is most original here is the fact that McKellen tells his story himself without reliance on contributions from friends and colleagues saying how they see him. This might not have worked but, if the McKellen we see here is indeed playing a part, it is only the initial expression of his doubts that suggests the possibility of a pose assumed for the occasion. Everything else seems genuine beyond question.


Stephenson’s film reveals Ian McKellen as a wonderfully fluent speaker ready to be honest about his craft (he dismisses as below par much of his early work for film and television), open about his family and his position as a childless gay man and hugely insightful about the business of acting. Well before deciding to become a professional actor during his time at Cambridge, he had been drawn to the stage and his sheer love of theatre and of being part of a company is vividly conveyed. If there is limited comment on his private life (Sean Mathias is only briefly mentioned), his role as a gay spokesman after coming out at 49 features prominently (and, again, he is honest in lamenting his own earlier reticence citing how he sidestepped the issue of sexuality when interviewed about acting in the gay play Bent).


Oddly enough, despite the contrasted aims of this film and Nothing Like a Dame, both of them suffer from a protracted final section of bits and pieces when something sharper and more succinct was required. Even so, McKellen: Playing the Part is a candid autobiography of real distinction, a revealing self-portrait as man and artist of somebody who declares that “acting takes everything from me”.




Featuring  Sir Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Scott Chambers, Luke Evans, Frances Barber, Sean Mathias.


Dir Joe Stephenson, Pro Joe Stephenson, Lene Bausager, Mark Birmingham and Sophia Gibber, Ph Eben Bolter, Ed Joe Stephenson and Harry Yendell, Pro Des Zoe Payne.


B Good Picture Company/Ugly Duckling Films/Surreal Films-Trafalgar Releasing.
96 mins. UK. 201 . Rel: 1 June 2018. Cert. 12A.