If I had labelled this list “the most iconic” performances of the last decade, there’s a possibility that this could have found its way at the very top. The word iconic is not one that I use lightly, but when a mere image – a stick, a beard, a horse can signify so much and when a believed character is so potently created on screen it can’t help but become iconic, and though he’s not at the very top on the list of my favourites – he’s close.
#13 Ian McKellen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001)
I never was one to lump all three Lord of the Rings films together. Still, it does have its benefits – I’m never certain where one begins and one ends and sometimes I end up choosing one or the other on the strength of the story (Tolkien’s) more than on the strength of Jackson’s filmmaking – which is consistently strong throughout. Even if I’m to judge McKellen’s Gandalf sometimes I wonder if his arguments with Worm Tongue (The Two Towers) or those with Ian Holm (The Return of the King) aren’t all equal, sometimes superiror to his work in the first instalment. It is a quandary; I’ll single out his work in The Fellowship as the key even if his work in the other two is in no way less.
The essence of Gandalf – Tolkien’s creation and McKellen’s incarnation – is his trustworthiness. How does one create someone so amicable, the youngest child would not hesitate to approach but formidable enough that the greatest entities would doubt (if only momentarily) before crossing. It’s a bit of an incongruity perhaps, but it’s one that is not apparent when McKellen is at the helm. One thing I constantly appreciate about his Gandalf throughout is his subtlety even while painting a character than exists in such broad strokes. It’s the eternal difficulty of creating such a character; Gandalf is the emblematic fatherly figure, the wise one but McKellen’s Gandalf is neither too wise nor too paternal. The moment where I always get drawn to his brilliance occurs when Bilbo shows him that fateful ring. One can almost hear the very words forming in his head – he’s shocked, confused, aroused, and anxious all at once and that brief, but significant burst of anger always surprises me. Gandalf is written in broad strokes, but McKellen doesn’t play him likewise.
He is consistent though. Each member of the fellowship, all at the Council of Elrond, even – know of the danger that lies ahead, but sometimes it seems Gandalf alone truly realises the gravity of the journey ahead, or perhaps its McKellen alone with so little screen-time signifies how worried he is. His simple act of closing his eyes as Frodo volunteers to be the ring bearer is possibly the most significant sigh of the film; in fact all the moments of extremely subtle facial acting can be accounted to McKellen. I always am impressed by his talent, even those moments that could become clichéd or cyclical are never thus with him: like his irritated look at Pippin when he wakes the Orcs in the cave (a look that is mirrored in The Return of the King with that ball…).
One thing that continues to puzzle me is Gandalf’s exit in The Fellowship of the Rings. His final line – fly you fools – more than being a significant line always piques my interest. Certainly, Gandalf is not immortal or omniscient – perhaps it’s that wry look on McKellen’s face as he delivers the line, but I always think that Gandalf knew he’d be getting out of that cave, by hook or by crook. It’s a question I can debate forever; it can’t be proved - for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, it’s these provocative moments that I return to each time I see The Fellowship. Only few actors could boast of such moments. Unlike the majority, when we return to McKellen’s performance new things arise each time. His Gandalf is not just a literary character, but an iconic person.
James McAvoy in Atonement
Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading