DVD review: “McKellen: Playing the Part” (2017)

“McKellen: Playing the Part” (2017) 


Running Time: 92 minutes

Directed by: Joe Stephenson

Featuring: Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen: “What woke me up was AIDS.”

This week sees the release of the documentary “McKellen: Playing the Part” (2017) on DVD, which is less a traditional example of the genre, instead opting for a subjective talk to the camera by the subject, offering insights into his life, acting as a profession, loves and his own mortality, and what death might mean. All of these subjects are interspersed with archival footage, re-enacted moments as well as clips from some of the actor’s stage productions and movies. McKellen who is almost eighty years old has felt the need to have an in depth discussion about his own life, his accomplishments as well as an explanation of what he does, an insight into his first love, that is acting on the stage, what that has meant to him over the decades, how it has effected him and how he hopes he has affected other people with his work. He also goes into great detail about his own third act in life, the role of a teacher and his own identity as a gay man who now sees himself as something more, which he has learnt from younger people he comes into contact with. 

Make no mistake in watching this film, it is an orchestrated piece of non-fiction but with some very large gaps in the actors own narrative, it is carried out as well as performed professionally as well as what could be deemed as a cold manner. There is very little filmed for this outside of the interview setting, which takes place in a kind of library, in a high backed leather chair, which adds to the overall coldness. In fact McKellen even talks about being reserved and cagey in interviews, he is little here as well, with the only real emotional part coming in a section towards the end when he refers to aging and death, which are universalities that all people can share in, I found myself touched by this, which I assume was calculated. So this is all from McKellan’s point of view and even in his own voice, this is true even of several well-directed scenes of his youth that have been reconstructed in crisp, post-war black-and-white by cinematographer James Rhodes. The characters open their mouths and McKellen’s voice comes out. One of the highlights is the reconstruction of his childhood portrayed as a young boy by Milo Parker, his young sidekick in “Mr Holmes” (2015).

The first time I really noticed Ian McKellen was first in the excellent “Richard III” (1995), a post modernist telling of the Shakespearean play that transferred the setting to a Nazi styled country, McKellan also produced and co-wrote the adaptation which is a high point for mixing Shakespeare and originality, something Baz Luhrmann did with his version of “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), there have been many others since with varying degrees of success since that 1995 version. The other film that really made me notice him was “Gods and Monsters” (1998) which was about the last days of director James Whales life, that had an impact on me, so much so that I still think of it often, it contained some brilliant performances that were all measured and executed expertly about elements of life that remain relevant today, it is a truly human story. Of course after those two breakthroughs came the double (or triple) of being in Hollywood franchises that were not only successful, but (mostly) critically loved as well, in “The Lord of the Rings” / “The Hobbit” (2001-2014) / “X-Men” (2000-2014) movies that exposed him to an entirely new audience which has kept his star glowing as well as making him relevant for an entirely new generation. 

“McKellen: Playing the Part” has been directed by Joe Stephenson who has little experience in documentary directing but has directed a movie and television prior to this. What I found missing from his style was there seemed to be no push back or any kind of deep dive into McKellen as a person, which is a missed opportunity especially for someone that has lived in the public eye, as well as all the incredible people that he has worked with and become friends with. Instead Stephenson has opted to let McKellen lead the project which can be a mistake as a good documentary director should be challenging their subject as well as attempting to find some truth, which to be fair, McKellen does seem to offer some insight into this life but I found I wanted more. There is good use of archival footage from magazine style shows over the past few decades which highlight McKellen in his daily life, these are great, especially to give insight to a life lived, but again for me there needed to be more personality and personal insights which would have been greatly appreciated as an audience member.

There is no doubt at all that Ian McKellen is a charming, charismatic man who knows how to not only tell a story but to weave a narrative, he has made a living from it for most of his life, here in this documentary he does that expertly. What this documentary does do is, in no uncertain terms, show us that McKellen has a love for the stage, that he hurts when a play is over and he fears never returning to it. He seems to enjoy acting onscreen now, but there have been times when he dreaded it to a high degree, not only that he does not appear to enjoy the CGI intensive movies that he has become a part of as they separate him from the act of acting which is what he enjoys. At eighty McKellen seems to be at another crossroads, it will be interesting to see how he copes and what decisions he makes in terms of his career which is definitely not over by a long shot.

What I enjoyed most and I found positive was that there have been movie parts that have touched him deeply. Recalling his role as director James Whale in “Gods and Monsters” he notes that ‘its success has given me as much pleasure as anything else in my life’. He also comments on “Richard III”, how hard it was but that he loved working with many different people from a variety of backgrounds. There is something truly reassuring that when you enjoy an actors work that they too can look back, realising they were two very special elements if a long career.

“McKellen: Playing the Part” is a very entertaining documentary that viewers should enjoy especially if they know little of the man or his stage work and movie roles outside of Gandalf and Magneto. Although the success of these roles is nothing to sneeze at, there are few actors who have been in so many successful movies, this is not what he would want to be remembered for. I enjoyed the moments that were not about show business, the pondering of his own mortality as well as the enjoyment he has talking to young people and illustrating to them what is possible, especially if you come from the poorer families which he has done becoming successful at his chosen profession. 

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