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Film

Ian McKellen’s 10 best performances of all time

@Russellisation

Ian McKellen, or Sir Ian Murray McKellen CH CBE as he is formally known, is recognised as one of the most admired and loved thespians of British theatre and cinema. Few screen actors truly hold the same level of respect as McKellen, with only the likes of Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Morgan Freeman coming close to his level of popularity.

An undisputed cultural icon, McKellen has been the recipient of every major theatrical award in the UK, including a Tony award for Amadeus in 1981 and a Laurence Olivier Award for his role in 1979s Bent. In addition, the actor has also been nominated for two Academy Awards and five BAFTAs, with his most recent nod coming after the release of the Ronald Harwood movie The Dresser.

Still acting to this very day at the age of 83, Ian McKellan is a legend of stage and screen who has inspired countless others to take up the craft. Having worked with the likes of Peter Jackson, Bryan Singer and Bill Condon throughout his fruitful career, let’s take a look back and celebrate the actor’s finest performances in his 58 years of performance.

Ian McKellen’s 10 best performances:

10. Flushed Away (David Bowers, Sam Fell, 2006)

This collaboration between Aardman animations and Sony pictures is too often underappreciated, especially considering the surprisingly hilarious script and the solid voice work from the likes of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Jean Reno, Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis. Telling the story of a rat that lives in a plush house in Kensington who is flushed down the toilet and into the underworld of the London sewers, this 2006 film is truly a creative marvel.

McKellen plays the role of the villain with glorious enthusiasm, bringing a big posh toad to life through his theatrical vocal performance.

9. Apt Pupil (Bryan Singer, 1998)

Based on the novella of the same name by Stephen King, Apt Pupil was a film sandwiched between Bryan Singer’s own success with 1995s The Usual Suspects and the superhero revival of X-Men in 2000. The story follows a boy who blackmails his neighbour after suspecting him to be a Nazi war criminal, with the film featuring such names as Ann Dowd, David Schwimmer, as well as Ian McKellen in the lead role.

Playing the role of the neighbour, McKellen delivers a complex performance that helps elevate the film into something far more fascinating than a provocative post-war drama.

8. Restoration (Michael Hoffman, 1995)

Ian McKellan is known for his fondness for classic period dramas, with the 1995 film, Restoration, being the perfect project to explore his favourite filmmaking genre. Also featuring Robert Downey Jr, Sam Neill, David Thewlis, Hugh Grant and Meg Ryan, the film follows the exiled royal physician to King Charles II who devoted himself to helping Londoners suffering from the plague. 

McKellen plays Will Gates, a supporting character who runs the Bidnold estate in Suffolk, helping to restore the building with Merivel (Downey Jr).

7. Mr. Holmes (Bill Condon, 2015) 

Playing a version of the world-famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, McKellen helps to turn the character on its head, playing the icon in his old age as he struggles with dementia. Appearing with Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada and Patrick Kennedy, McKellen’s version of Holmes is brooding and despairing, whilst still flickering with the frenetic energy that made his character so influential. 

Trying to remember his final case that involved a mysterious woman, the story follows Holmes as he tries to solve the fragile secrets of his mind. 

6. King Lear (Trevor Nunn, 2008)

As a Shakespearian thespian, McKellen is fond of a little bit of romantic tragedy and Elizabethan drama, starring in the TV adaptation of King Lear in 2008 with fellow actors William Gaunt, Frances Barber and Monica Dolan. Playing the role of the titular king, McKellen commands the screen as if he was on stage, descending into madness whilst still somehow warranting sympathy. 

Few can truly tap into the heart of Shakespeare’s work better than McKellen, with the star having also featured in Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth.

5. David Copperfield (Joan Craft, 1966)

The story of David Copperfield, adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens, has cropped up several times in cinema and television, most recently in 2019s The Personal History of David Copperfield with Dev Patel. Back in 1966, however, McKellen starred in a TV mini-series about the gentle orphan who discovers life and love in an adult world, appearing as the titular literary icon. 

In one of his first major roles, McKellen announced himself as a major player in British cinema, starring in his first feature film role in A Touch of Love, just three years later.

4. Richard III (Richard Loncraine, 1995)

McKellen’s love for Shakespeare has already been established, but his role in the 1995 movie proved this more than any other project, commanding the screen as the titular King. Appearing alongside Robert Downey Jr, Maggie Smith and Jim Broadbent, McKellen helps to bring this classic tale of backstabbing and political scheming to modern audiences with an impressive flourish. 

Updating the story, the classic play about the 15th-century king is reimagined in the alternative setting of 1930s England by director Richard Loncraine, with the shadow of fascism providing an effective backdrop.

3. X-Men 2 (Bryan Singer, 2003)

Many contemporary fans of cinema will recognise Ian McKellen for playing the role of Magneto in the X-Men franchise that includes the original trilogy running from 2000 to 2006, as well as X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014. Taking on the role with a great deal of majesty, McKellen stamps his presence on the franchise with a considerable stomp, thanks to the chemistry between himself and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X.

McKellen is impressive throughout each and every X-Men film he stars in, but we think the sequel to the 2000 film gives the actor the most to do in the villainous role.

2. Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon, 1998)

Nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the 1998 movie, McKellen produced one of his greatest performances in this biopic of the last days of the Frankenstein director James Whale. Appearing with Brendan Fraser, Lolita Davidovich and Lynn Redgrave, McKellen is forced to carry the film largely on his own shoulders, bringing a great deal of emotional nuance to his central performance.

Earning rave reviews for his affectionate performance that drew from his history in theatre, McKellen narrowly missed out on an Oscar for Best Actor.

1. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)

The finest film of his career, and his most beloved too, The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring forever changed the makeup of fantasy cinema, forcing the industry to sit up and take dragons, wizards and magical quests, seriously. Playing Gandalf, a mythical wizard with a personality like a kind grandfather, McKellen’s character leads Frodo, Sam and the rest of the hobbits through a dangerous land tarnished by orcs, goblins and terrifying creatures of the night. 

There are very few cinematic visions that have been able to match Peter Jackson’s remarkable Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the New Zealand filmmaker taking on J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels with narrative, technical and creative mastery. Truthfully, any of his three films could be chosen as Ian McKellen’s best, but no instalment explores the depth and grace of his character than the very first.