12 Sep 2018

Movie review - McKellen: Playing the Part

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 12 September 2018

The one film out of this week’s collection that features halfway decent acting, unsurprisingly, is McKellen.  It’s even subtitled Playing the Part.

There is no doubt that Sir Ian McKellen is not only one of the best actors currently treading the boards or gracing the cinema, but he’s played some of the most interesting parts.

From Shakespeare and Marlowe to providing the interest in pop culture epics like Lord of the Rings and X-Men, Sir Ian is worthy of attention - or rather, his work is worthy of attention, and that’s an important distinction. 

The reason we’ve heard of people like Ian McKellen is because of their wonderful work, and their work is so good because they devote most of their lives to it. 

That doesn’t leave much over for an underlying story.

Much of McKellen: Playing the Part is taken up with a long, exhaustive interview with the great man. It’s interesting enough for a while, even if it sticks pretty close to the usual format of the celebrity actor autobiography.

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Photo: Supplied

McKellen was born in Lancashire to a family who wouldn’t have been out of place in Coronation Street, and became infatuated by the stage when mum took him off to see an Ivor Novello musical.  

After that you couldn’t keep him away from the theatre.

It soon became clear that young Ian was born for the stage. He acted all the time at school, at university, and then professionally.

The rest of the film is devoted to Ian McKellen climbing up the greasy pole to fame, if not fortune. 

The theatre - then, as now - was certainly not a shortcut to wealth, but fame, on the other hand, came rather quickly.

He worked with everyone, often dazzling the critics, but you’ll get very little insight in this film about why he was so good. 

Actors are often frustratingly secretive about their gifts and techniques – though they do love analyzing others.

McKellen himself is rather good discussing the approaches of Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, though oddly this scene was cut out of the film for some reason.

Possibly that was to make room for the more commercial material - McKellen’s late-career films and his prominence in the gay rights movement. Frankly, more time is devoted to both Lord of the Rings and McKellen being gay than is strictly necessary, in my opinion.   They are, after all, the two things about Sir Ian that most of us already know.

British actor Ian McKellen (C) speaks through a megaphone during a protest over an alleged crackdown on gay men in Chechnya outside the Russian Embassy in London on June 2, 2017.

Sir Ian McKellen speaks through a megaphone during a protest over an alleged crackdown on gay men in Chechnya outside the Russian Embassy in London last year. Photo: AFP

I’d have preferred more about his wider film career - particularly because film acting didn’t come naturally to him.

The best parts of McKellen are when he’s playing some of the famous parts, from a stellar career – Macbeth with Judi Dench, Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart, the older Sherlock Holmes. The story behind his appearance playing a version of himself with Ricky Gervais in Extras is both amusing and revealing. 

The least gripping bits are Sir Ian talking about himself. He offers very few insights, though I suppose there’s no reason why he should.  

Just because you’re a great actor doesn’t mean you have to be a psychological genius too. 

Still, I’m sorry there wasn’t room for my favourite McKellen role – when he returned to his Lancashire roots for a stint as a fraudulent writer on Coronation Street

As is often the case, the work revealed rather more than the man.

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