John Lyttle on film

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Sir Ian McKellen is god. The proof? Richard Loncraine's rendition of Shakespeare's Richard III, with McKellen not only making marvellous sense of the verse - well, he would, wouldn't he? - but, perhaps for the first time, making marvellous sense as a pure cinematic presence, as opposed to being a classically-trained actor appearing (or slumming it) on the screen. See Scandal, The Last Action Hero, The Shadow, Six Degrees of Separation... Parts that should have let this great and yet still undervalued national treasure discover and develop a more easy, naturalistic style for the mass audience, the way appearing as Heathcliff in William Wyler's version of Wuthering Heights made Laurence Olivier finally dig within himself to find a quieter, more recessive mode for the camera's all-seeing eye and the microphone boom's all-magnifying ear.

It's an odd situation. Those earlier, lighter pop parts didn't liberate McKellen (there's still a trace of stiffness in his otherwise witty South African in Six Degrees) or even appear to provide the opportunity for experimentation. On the contrary, he is never more the knight: measured, unbending, dutiful. So how strange that Richard III, the role one would expect to make him appear most "knightly" instead makes him seem the most magnetic of movie stars; sexy, smooth and perfectly pitched at the stalls. McKellen's casual daring makes you giggle: he plays this nightmare of a villain as a dream of a hero, and he's so laid-back that his style, too, becomes a joke. His rise to power has the quality of a vicious prank - and all the while he's capable of making even Margarita Pracatan seem anally retentive.