McKELLEN: PLAYING THE PART

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Sir Ian McKellen deserves a feature-length, theatrically released film about his life and career, and he’s got one: McKellen: Playing The Part. It features a sit-down interview with Sir Ian – looking very dapper in jacket and tie – interspersed with loads of footage, photos and other archival materials. Additionally, director Joe Stephenson has shot scenes of a boyhood Ian, played by first Milo Parker and then Scott Chambers, which have a similar affect to dramatic recreations in true-crime documentaries: they work, but you’re constantly wondering whether they’re really necessary.

I am the absolute target market for this film – I love Sir Ian – and find it a little hard to critique. For a novice interested in a general discovery of Sir Ian, I suppose the film – at 92 minutes – is a comprehensive and entertaining enough overview. It covers childhood, the early theatrical career, the mid-career of big theatre and some television, Sir Ian’s coming-out and politicisation, and ultimately the film career. And of course, there’s Sir Ian himself, in that charming jacket and tie, being ever so charming and dapper.

But is the novice really going to go to the cinema to see this film? And if not, why not give the film’s true audience – people who already love Sir Ian – something heftier? Sir Ian deserves at least two hours, more footage from the theatrical days (especially his incredible performances as Edward II and Richard II, both of which are teasingly included here), and more context. An example of the film’s lack of discipline and focus occurs around the Amadeus section, when Sir Ian won a Tony on Broadway. It is minutes into this chunk before the awning of the theatre finally reveals exactly which play Sir Ian was on Broadway with, and then the subsequent natural question – why wasn’t he in the film version? – goes both unasked and unanswered.

There is no discernible point of view here. It’s not the story of Sir Ian’s politicisation, nor his intriguing attitude to theatre versus film work, nor his “early years”; it’s a bit of everything in 92 minutes, and as such, it’s completely entertaining, charming and lovely while also being annoyingly unsatisfying. Now that this exists, it’s unlikely, given Sir Ian is 79, someone is going to make another version of his life, one which extends him, quite simply, a little more time.

Mr. Holmes

mr_holmes_poster-900x1334***1/2 (out of five)

In 1998 director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen collaborated on Gods and Monsters, an intriguing tale of Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale. It won Condon a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and McKellen a nomination for Best Actor. Now they offer us Mr. Holmes, again adapted from a novel (A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin) and again presenting an intriguing premise, but this time, come awards season, I think only McKellen will be in the running; his performance, rather than the screenplay (or direction) is the chief pleasure of this rather dour, melancholic film.

It’s 1947, Sherlock Holmes is 93, and his memory is starting to desert him. He’s been retired from the crime-solving game for thirty years and now tends bees in a country house in Sussex, attended to by a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes is desperate to maintain – indeed, to stimulate – his memory just long enough, and with enough power, to remember and write down the particulars of his final case. He’s forgotten why he retired, he’s sure that it’s to do with that case, and he wants to remember.

The mystery that follows – told in flashback – is not nearly as fine as most “real” Holmes stories, and that’s a shame; if it had been a humdinger, this movie may have been very special indeed. Likewise, the meditation on ageing and memory loss is moving but not particularly illuminating; there are plenty of other movies that deal with it more interestingly. Most of the film takes place in the present, and the main relationship is between 93-year-old Holmes and young Roger, to whom Holmes is teaching the art of beekeeping. The dramatic conflict, such as it is, involves Holmes remembering his final case and the fear of his housekeeper leaving him (and taking Roger); neither is gripping.

But McKellen is playing Holmes, and McKellen is wonderful. He rises above the film’s singularly melancholic tone by simply bringing his astonishing palette. For one scene (and one scene only, which is a great shame) we see the sixty-something Holmes delivering a trademark deductive monologue with such brilliant wit, elegance, speed, precision and power that it shows Benedict Cumberbatch a thing or two. I would love to see another one of these, that dispenses with the old Mr. Holmes, and just lets McKellen play Sherlock at his own age, because he is obviously in the prime of life and the very height of his powers.