Ian McKellen: 10 essential films

A selection of some of the best places to seek out one of the finest British actors of our era.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

From his years in regional repertory theatre through his membership of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company at the Old Vic and widely acclaimed roles at the RSC, Ian McKellen remains a legendary fixture of the British stage. His move into cinema in his early 40s began with supporting roles in the likes of Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and alongside Meryl Streep in Fred Schepisi’s Plenty (1985), and a notable lead turn as D.H. Lawrence in the biopic Priest of Love (1981).

Iconic turns in two tentpole franchises would follow, as would a knighthood in 1991, McKellen’s restless activism spanning far beyond his gay rights campaign-spearheading. As the figurehead of the BFI’s ongoing Shakespeare on Film season, this summer sees McKellen travel to Mumbai with his co-authored adaptation of Richard III as part of a touring programme of films. With the film released on BFI Blu-ray in June, we rounded up 10 of the actor’s greatest performances across TV, stage and screen.

Armchair Thriller: Dying Day (1980)

Director Robert Tronson

Armchair Thriller: Dying Day (1980)

Mr Skipling is a quiet man, a man of routine. He sells advertising space in a poky office and keeps himself to himself. On 28 February, Mr Skipling is going to be murdered, or so he thinks. He’s discovered a tape – soon erased – containing details of a plot hatched against him in a local Berkshire pub. No one believes him: not the police, his colleagues, his estranged wife nor the reclusive lord of the manor holed-up “like Howard Hawks” (“You mean Hughes! You’re getting your Howards in a muddle!”) Is he going mad, or is everyone conspiring against him? This is a beautifully written, Kafka-esque four-parter made for Thames Television that sees McKellen deliver a delicately nuanced, sympathetic study in loneliness and paranoia. Its tightly wound mysteries shield their hand right up to the closing minutes.

Loving Walter (1983)

Director Stephen Frears

Loving Walter (1983)

This feature-length edit of two hour-long television dramas (Walter, 1982; Walter and June, 1983) made for Channel 4 – the first was the centrepiece of its launch night programming – served as a stark indictment of Britain’s mental health services under Thatcher. Stephen Frears keeps the camera close to his subject, all the better to capture McKellen’s devastating turn as the mentally disabled Walter. It’s unremittingly bleak viewing, McKellen instilling Walter with heartbreaking humanity and hopefulness in the face of relentless trauma; from grim experiences at home and work, through a later doomed romance, right up to the film’s cutting final shot.

Scandal (1989)

Director Michael Caton-Jones

Scandal (1988)

Films like Michael Caton-Jones’ Scandal – an adult drama about the Christine Keeler affair that went a long way towards bringing down the Conservative government in the early 1960s – don’t come along much any more. McKellen plays John Profumo, the disgraced minister of war embroiled in the affair and supporting player to John Hurt’s lead. Scene-stealing hair-do aside, it’s a beautifully judged performance even as the tragic consequences of the scandal belong to Hurt in its transition to screen. “I had just come out as a gay man,” said McKellen of the role, “and one of my motives for proceeding was to prove that I could be convincing as a character about whom little is remembered other than that he was a raging heterosexual.” It also afforded him the glorious line sadly denied to either Gandalf or Magneto: “You have never made love until you’ve made love in a gondola.”

Richard III (1995)

Director Richard Loncraine

Richard III (1995)

As witty and cinematic a rejoinder to Laurence Olivier’s 1955 adaptation of the Bard’s early melodrama of royal villainy as you’re likely to find, Richard III served as McKellen’s passport to the big-screen major league. The actor propels the narrative both on-screen and off: he served as executive producer and co-screenwriter, and his judicious pruning of the text proves as inspired as his fleet-footed central turn. Taking its cue from Richard Eyre’s 1990 National Theatre production (in which McKellen also starred), the film sets its action in a parallel 1930s under the cosh of fascism. McKellen draws out the black humour – not least in his delectable, fourth-wall breaking soliloquies – ascribing a poisonously seductive pathos to Shakespeare’s withered antihero.

Gods and Monsters (1998)

Director Bill Condon

Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1998)

The role that saw McKellen receive his first Oscar nomination is one of his very best. Gods and Monsters tells the speculative story of a one-sided love affair between the émigré British filmmaker James Whale and his young gardener (brilliantly played by Brendan Fraser) in 1950s Hollywood. The title refers to a line from Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – to whose production the film flashes back – the older man trying to give life to an unrequited passion after his own image. It’s a desperately sad film; a bittersweet study of love, death, companionship and old Hollywood. McKellen’s performance is a triumph, imbuing Whale with an aching, bruised humanity that transcends mere biographical or subtextual readings of the man and his films.

Apt Pupil (1998)

Director Bryan Singer

Apt Pupil (1998)

Of the four films McKellen would go on to make with director Bryan Singer, Apt Pupil remains the most interesting (sorry, X-fans). Having already played Hitler in Countdown to War (1989), McKellen is demoted to Lagerkommandant-in-hiding for this adaptation of the Stephen King novella. If the film prioritises genre beats over any serious investigation into the nature of the evil, the former are handled with consummate skill by Singer. But McKellen remains the reason to watch, clearly relishing the opportunity to expose his character’s insidious inner rot as he falls into a suburban power struggle with his young, morbidly curious neighbour. Not one for cat lovers. 

The Lord of the Rings (2001-03)

Director Peter Jackson

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Had he accepted an offer from Tom Cruise to star in John Woo’s sequel to Mission: Impossible on a basis of the few sides of the screenplay he’d seen, McKellen might never have it made it to New Zealand for what would become his most iconic screen performance. The towering, twinkling moral centre to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings universe, his Gandalf would appear in six films over 13 years (he was one of the few cast members to return for The Hobbit trilogy, 2012-14), earning him his second Oscar nomination for The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). It’s impossible to choose a defining moment: the Balrog battle? His transfigurative reappearance, “at the turn of the tide”? That astonishing close-up as Frodo makes his fateful decision?

King Lear (2008)

Director Trevor Nunn

King Lear (2008)

If only more of McKellen’s acclaimed theatrical performances had been filmed. It would be great to see his 1980 Amadeus (in which he played Salieri opposite Tim Curry’s Mozart), his 1971 Hamlet or his Uncle Vanya. Fortunately, some are readily available, including his Macbeth (Trevor Nunn, 1976) and his wonderful one-man show Acting Shakespeare, which was recorded by PBS television in 1982. Shot at Pinewood Studios, the 2008 television film of his RSC production of King Lear sees the actor at the height of his powers. It’s a performance of exquisite nuance and lucidity, eliciting rare sympathy and vulnerability in the opening act before the sheer elemental force of the later storm scene.

The Dresser (2015)

Director Richard Eyre

The Dresser (2015)

This BBC television adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play (previously adapted for the big screen with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in 1983) makes for a neat double-bill with the above King Lear. It’s a backstage drama charting the co-dependent relationship between a touring actor in decline (Anthony Hopkins) and his loyal valet (McKellen) ahead of one final production of Lear. Playing a preening sycophant and alcoholic who has devoted his life to ‘Sir’, it’s McKellen who brings the production to life, his character’s possessiveness steadily revealing a tragic bitterness festering beneath his passion for the theatrical life. As if it were needed, The Dresser also offers further proof of McKellen’s impeccable instinct for comedy.

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Director Bill Condon

Mr. Holmes (2015)

McKellen reunited with his Gods and Monsters director for a Sherlock Holmes tale that proved a welcome antidote to the smug self-satisfaction of the recent TV incarnation and Guy Ritchie’s cartoon revisionism. It’s a witty, meta take on the character’s legend (adapted from Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind) in which McKellen plays Holmes in two timelines: as a nonagenarian retiree and in flashback working on his final case. Condon allows the film’s mysteries to unfold gently, all the better for McKellen to subtly address the physical and mental depletion and Victorian repression of his Holmes. A wonderful performance – here’s hoping McKellen and Condon re-team soon.

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