McKellen: Playing the Part is a feature-length documentary recounting the professional and personal escapades of Sir Ian McKellen, arguably one of the most celebrated classical actors of our generation.
Despite McKellen’s insistence that he is as insignificant as the next person, this film chugged along effortlessly, pulled forward by McKellen’s at once charming and tragic life experiences. Directed by Joe Stephenson, a relative newcomer in the British film industry, McKellen: Playing the Part chronicles McKellen’s staggering journey from closeted theatre enthusiast to critically acclaimed actor and gay rights activist is realised through black-and-white reenactments, archive footage, and talking head interviews.
While McKellen is most popularly known for his Oscar-nominated turn as the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, as well as his portrayal of the homosapien-hating mutant Magneto in the X-Men franchise, Stephenson earnestly illuminates how McKellen’s recent commercial popularity is the veritable tip of the iceberg. We are transported all the way back to McKellen’s childhood, when his frequent ventures to the local playhouse, and his quiet struggle to understand his homosexuality, translated into an unremitting love for all things dress up and make believe.
We follow McKellen through the stops and starts of his early career, including his unusual decision to forgo the bright lights of the West End in favour of smaller, more intimate performances. We also learn of the political and social upheaval that prompted his public coming-out at the age of 49. Stephenson lovingly celebrates McKellen’s profound impact as both an actor and LGBT+ activist. The different types of footage fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: the snippets from McKellen’s oeuvre testify to his startling talent; the reenactments graciously fill in the bits and pieces that could not be caught on camera; and McKellen’s talking head interviews reveal a playful man who is unreasonably easy to get along with. McKellen: Playing the Part is a humble celebration of one of the finest actors we will ever have the pleasure of watching, and he only becomes all the more enchanting with age.
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