Review – Documentary ‘McKellen: Playing the Part’ spotlights a legendary storyteller

Poster for 2018 documentary McKellen: Playing the Part

Genre: Documentary
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 27th May 2018
Runtime: 92 minutes
Director: Joe Stephenson
Writer: Joe Stephenson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Scott Chambers, Luke Evans
Synopsis: A journey through the life and career of legendary British actor Ian McKellen, from his theatrical beginnings to his movie work and progress as a gay rights activist.



“It’s an obituary this, isn’t it?” chuckles Ian McKellen as the credits roll on McKellen: Playing the Part, after an hour and a half of the actor laying himself bare, both as a performer and as a person. Joe Stephenson‘s intimate documentary, focused around a wide-ranging interview with the man himself, is a candid and exhaustive portrait of a man who has rightly become an icon of cinema, having already established himself as one of the greatest stage talents of his generation.

McKellen is an actor who’s absolutely built for this sort of treatment. He’s a natural raconteur and knows exactly how to spin a story, aided by reconstructed dramatisations of his early years, with McKellen played by young actors including Milo Parker – best known for appearing alongside McKellen in Mr Holmes. The doc works perfectly for those who know very little about McKellen, but also has interesting tidbits for those who are familiar with his work. In one late segment, he recounts how he became disillusioned while filming a scene for The Hobbit in which he was alone on a green screen set, pretending to interact with dwarves.

The joy of Playing the Part is, first and foremost, McKellen’s honesty. He’s obviously a man who chooses every one of his words carefully, but is still bracingly frank, whether discussing his early attraction to men or confronting his own mortality head-on while acknowledging how much the idea of death terrifies him. It’s compelling to listen to McKellen deconstructing his own life in this level of detail, analysing his own legacy and his journey to the top of the acting profession.

Stephenson’s film is elegantly paced, lending a surprising amount of focus to the early stages of McKellen’s life, as he transitions from theatre-loving youngster to the rising star of the British stage, having waved goodbye to the National Theatre in order to snag juicy leading roles elsewhere. Rather than simply jumping to fun footage of Gandalf and Magneto, Playing the Part shows the way the McKellen plant germinated and blossomed. The film portion of McKellen’s career is what will ultimately define him for many, but it’s a relatively brief phase of his life.

It’s away from stage and screen, though, that McKellen: Playing the Part finds its most emotionally poignant strands. A large percentage of the film’s final third is devoted to McKellen’s candid retelling of how he became an activist for gay rights, having seen many of his friends suffer and die during the AIDS crisis. The story of McKellen’s decision to come out of the closet and form Stonewall is stirring and powerful, with McKellen clearly enthused and empowered by the outreach work he still does today in order to advance equality.

McKellen: Playing the Part is an involving and wide-ranging portrait of an extraordinary life. Whether it’s as a stage star or just as the man behind Gandalf’s beard, McKellen has touched millions of people with his dedication to the “very human” craft of acting and his charity work. Through the admittedly sympathetic lens of Joe Stephenson’s camera, the viewer is able to see McKellen as the charismatic, witty man he is – the human being behind all of the glitz and glamour.


Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Whether you’re a fan of Ian McKellen or someone with little knowledge of his career, there’s a huge amount of joy in McKellen: Playing the Part. Joe Stephenson focuses on the detail of every aspect of McKellen’s life, but allows the man himself to tell his story without much interference from the other side of the camera. This is the actor’s life in his own words and it’s endlessly entertaining to listen to him speak.


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