I normally watch comedy or feel-good happy-ending movies (escapism). But with two of the finest British actors ever, I had to watch this movie. Amazon's teaser describes it as "wickedly funny and moving," but having seen the stage play years ago, I expected it to be more moving than funny, at least for me, and it was.
McKellen is such a master at finding a fresh way to portray a character that still feels right, still feels like the character you've seen or read about before, only better, more multi-dimensional, but never overdone. The most diverse actor I can think of, McKellen can play anything from a clock (Beauty and the Beast) to a murderer (DaVinci Code). Here, there's a lot of diversity in one role, Norman. He pampers and cajoles his actor/boss, "Sir," like a nursemaid. He threatens a young woman with violence and blackmail in order to protect Sir. Norman suffers so much pain because he wanted to act, but was never given the chance. He lives through Sir, grabbing a crumb of fulfillment here and there, as by his ability to recite any line in any Shakespearian play when Sir needs reminding. Yet Norman is insecure about making a simple pre-curtain announcement to the audience. In my opinion, Norman rivals Dickens' character Bradley Headstone for pathos, and is ideal for someone of McKellen's talent.
Hopkins' Sir is 500% convincing as a man who is self-centered to the point of sociopathy. And now, the sociopath has dementia on top of it all! (And I wasn't just convinced because, sometimes, I looked at Sir's and saw Hannibal Lecter.) You don't like Sir, he infuriates you, yet you still feel sorry for him.
The supporting actors are superb. I'd write more about them, but this is too long already.