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