McKellen: Playing the Part

1 hr. 36 min. | Rated M | Offensive language and sexual references.

Starring: Ian McKellen, Scott Chambers, Luke Evans

Sir Ian McKellen is a consummate teller of stories. He has used the gift for his entire working life.
McKellen's first full-time job was acting. It was what he wanted to do when he was a schoolboy sneaking backstage to watch plays from the wings. Theatre and film have always been McKellen's world.
Sitting for interviewer and director Joe Stephenson (who made the very good and little seen Brit drama Chicken) McKellen is in a generous and expansive mood. The interview stretched over a 14-hour day, so very little of McKellen's work or thoughts are left out. In the service of a less accomplished or mercurial figure, a film like this might have been a self-indulgent slog, but for anyone who admires and respects McKellen as both actor and human being, this 92-minute documentary is a treat.

McKellen speaks often on how all human existence is a performance of one kind or another – "we choose our costume and the parts of ourself we will present every morning," he intones at one point – and his musing on the point lends the film a very self-aware – almost performative – quality.
McKellen's arc through theatre is the stuff of legend. From a chance audition to enter Cambridge – "the most important audition of my life" – to a professional actor's life in London, McKellen attained recognition and fame early and often. Driven to stay challenged by his work, he has made a habit of quitting one company at the height of success to go back out on the road with a new, more precarious project.

It's a strength of Stephenson's film that it doesn't take the expected route of cutting away to McKellen's friends and colleagues to hear their tributes and anecdotes. Yes, I'm sure Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart and Derek Jacobi et al would have been droll and hilarious, but for insight into McKellen, you can't beat the disarmingly introspective man himself.

Growing up gay – before that excellent word had even found its true home – in the north of England was maybe the engine of McKellen's courage and self-belief, while the need to dissemble every day of his young life was a tough but brutally effective primer in acting.

Despite having known he was gay for all of his post-childhood life, McKellen didn't come out publicly until 1988, when he was 49 years old. The twin horrors of AIDS and the Thatcher government's viciously discriminatory "clause 28" legislation finally drove McKellen to take a public stand in defense of the basic human right to live as one is born.

McKellen: Playing the Part is a celebration of a life particularly well-lived. McKellen emerges as a clear-eyed, impish, utterly professional and pragmatic optimist.
For an hour-and-a-half, he makes very fine company indeed. Recommended.

The Dominion Post

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Poster of McKellen: Playing the Part