Magic and mag­netism ‘

Ian McKellen charms in a doco about his life as an ac­tor, ac­tivist and per­pet­ual wiz­ard.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - McKELLEN: PLAY­ING THE PART di­rected by Joe Stephenson

What side of Ian McKellen am I go­ing to present?” the es­teemed ac­tor asks with a cheeky glint in his eye. The pub­lic in­ter­view, like any other role, is a per­for­mance. A side of one’s self can be turned to the mi­cro­phone or the cam­era, the other hid­den. An­other cos­tume to wear, an­other face to put for­ward.

In Joe Stephenson’s ten­der and charm­ing doc­u­men­tary, McKellen plays him­self as the hum­ble con­fi­dant, loung­ing louchely in an arm­chair, gen­tly ush­er­ing us through his life with just enough hon­esty and can­dour to let you be­lieve he’s let his guard down. And that voice. It’s hard not to be en­thralled by such au­thor­ity and grandeur. Yet even that voice is a guise, too, his Lan­cashire ac­cent long ago sti­fled into re­ceived pro­nun­ci­a­tion.

The­atri­cal­ity was in the blood. As a

child, he wan­dered down the Wi­gan high street with all his clothes on back­wards, a scene lov­ingly recre­ated by young ac­tor Milo Parker, who starred op­po­site McKellen in 2015’s Mr Holmes. The early role-play­ing, he the­o­rises, was a nec­es­sary cover. A way to pa­per over the hole in his soul. Of his sex­u­al­ity, he says, he was “blind … noth­ing to see, noth­ing to hear, noth­ing to feel”. To ac­knowl­edge be­ing gay, es­pe­cially in an age when it was still crim­i­nalised, was dan­ger­ous.

He knew early. It was for­ma­tive as well as de­form­ing. Ob­scur­ing it gave him a nat­u­ral well of tal­ent, and a dis­tin­guished ca­reer as one of the finest Shake­spearean ac­tors of his gen­er­a­tion – in a very crowded field.

Af­ter that came late suc­cess in film: Richard III, Gods and Mon­sters, then of course, Mag­neto in X-Men and Gan­dalf in six Tolkien adap­ta­tions. But still, he stayed in the closet un­til he was 49.

He’s now in his eight­i­eth year and is just as fa­mous for his ac­tivism as his act­ing. To some, he’s al­ways been creased with the lines of time, syn­ony­mous with the wiz­ened wiz­ard he made an icon. The pale and hand­somely an­gu­lar face of his youth now be­longs to an­other cen­tury.

Death, in its many forms, hangs over McKellen: the pass­ing of his beloved mother when he was 12, his fa­ther at 24, the Aids epi­demic of the 80s that fel­low ac­tivist and play­wright Larry Kramer once called a “plague”, and then the sly ad­mis­sion that this kind of re­flec­tion feels a bit like an obit­u­ary.

You can only hope that it’s pre­ma­ture, that McKellen will stand as an en­dear­ing and tri­umphant celebration for an­other few decades rather than a post-mortem. There are many more roles to play, in­clud­ing the largest one of all: be­ing Ian McKellen.

IN CIN­E­MAS NOW

Ian McKellen: Play­ing the Part

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