McKellen: Playing the Part (4 stars)

McKellen: Playing the Part

The titular thespian looks back over his career in this warm and personable portrait

British thespians of a certain vintage are proving excellent company at the cinema this year. Hot on the heels of the delightful Nothing Like a Dame comes McKellen: Playing the Part, a feature-length interview with the actor and activist, in which he looks back in wonder at a 50-year career.

McKellen is in relaxed and thoughtful mode, striving to reveal his true self and keenly aware of the many masks that have been an essential part of his life. It is 30 years since McKellen came out as gay and he went on to play such a public role in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, later opposing Section 28 and helping secure so many other landmarks on the road to equality. There is a sense in which his life is divided into the periods before and after coming out.

Illustrated with a great selection of clips, from his thrilling Shakespearean performances to Broadway triumphs, the interview also addresses why McKellen was so neglected by the cinema in his youth. Who knew that he had screen-tested for the role of Noël Coward in Robert Wise's Star! in 1968, only to be passed over in favour of Coward's godson Daniel Massey?

Anyone who only knows McKellen from The Lord of the Rings or X-Men will learn so much more about his career and his vulnerability. He is unimpressed by his performance as Magneto, weeps after a curtain call for Waiting for Godot, fearing it might be his last stage appearance, and admits that at 78 he ponders a good deal on death and the meaning of life.

McKellen is a born storyteller – able to provide colour and context with a quirky detail, raised eyebrow, or roll of the tongue. He is also unpretentious, which is what makes this such a warm and endearing encounter.

Screening in selected cinemas accompanied by a live Q&A on Sun 27 May. Wider release from Fri 1 Jun.

McKellen: Playing the Part

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • UK
  • 1h 32min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Joe Stephenson
  • Cast: Ian McKellen, Scott Chambers, Luke Evans, Frances Barber
  • UK release: 1 June 2018

A feature-length interview with Ian McKellen, in which the actor looks back over his long career as an actor and LGBT activist. Those who only know him from appearances in big movie franchises will find great clips from his theatre work, and McKellen is a born, unpretentious storyteller. Warm and endearing.