The critic of The critic is the type that occasionally exists in real life, but seems to play a far larger role in fictional stories of artists who clearly have little love for the job. Jimmy Erskine, played by Ian McKellen, is a learned brute. His fondness for the theater is now less obvious than the wild joy he takes in tearing apart artists and productions and the satisfaction he derives from the status and influence his job affords him .
The criticDirected by Anand Tucker, it is the story of how far he will go when his position is threatened. Since the script for the film was written by Patrick Marber (by Closer And Notes on a scandal), it’s no surprise that he’ll actually go very far. And considering he’s played by McKellen, you can certainly bet on a wild lead. But if The critic manages to build up its antihero, but otherwise it’s too confused to say much around him or the world in which he exists.
Good performances can’t save a dubious script.
The trouble begins with an inauspicious death. In 1934, Jimmy had enjoyed a distinguished acting career spanning four decades The London ChronicleTheater critic. But when the owner of the newspaper dies, management passes to his son, the new Viscount Brooke (Mark Strong).
While his father prioritized “strong opinions strongly expressed,” the younger Brooke has other ideas. Be timeline aims to curb support for British fascism and reposition itself as a family newspaper – one with little tolerance for what Jimmy’s editors cautiously call his “inclinations”, i.e. the open secret of his homosexuality. Jimmy, always prone to anger under authority, quickly finds himself in so much trouble that he is fired.
This is how his elaborate machinations begin to get his job back. As a person, Jimmy is often annoying; As a character, he is usually compelling. Marber gives his fellow writer the juiciest lines and the most biting retorts. “They’ve been spilling the beans for a decade and now it’s going to stop,” complains Nina (Gemma Arterton), an actress who is a particular target of his ire. His lips curl in evil amusement as he fires back, “Why, are you retiring?” (Jimmy would have killed as a prominent blogger in the Perez Hilton era.)
But his disrespect can also take more frightening turns. When he’s accosted one night by a gang of blackshirts, Jimmy can’t resist making fun of them too – to the palpable dismay of his younger black lover Tom (Alfred Enoch), who knows full well he’s an even bigger target for violence state-sanctioned fascists as Jimmy.
Jimmy has enough soul to soften when talking about the artists he truly admires, including Henry James and Oscar Wilde, or to reflect on how his caustic criticism is his own way of fighting the country’s declining standards. He also has no intention of manipulating those he supposedly cares about and regards his collateral damage with a nonchalance that borders on gloating.
Often, The critic feels like an experiment to see how far Jimmy can take himself before he’s forced to take something really seriously – before he feels any real guilt or fear. That McKellen is convincing in his rare flashes of sincerity only makes the emptiness we otherwise see all the more disturbing.
The overall cast is strong. Jimmy plans to woo Brooke with the help of Nina, to whom he promises rave reviews in return. It’s a bad deal, but Arterton gives the character just the right mix of hope and ruthlessness to make her acquiescence seem inevitable.
An unfortunate target, Strong makes the most of his reserved character by seemingly not doing much at all. From the outside, Brooke is the perfect English gentleman, with his distinguished title, well-groomed grooming and impeccably stiff upper lip. But a certain falter in his voice or a glint in his eyes betray the depth of his loneliness and insecurity and give him an unexpectedly poignant note of sorrow.
But the main cast is overall underserved by a script that emphasizes theatrical drama over thoughtful character development and combines darkness with depth. As a story, The critic is almost as ruthless with humanity as Jimmy is with the pieces he doesn’t like. The consequences of his actions quickly move beyond his control, tearing apart a tangle of interconnected relationships with violence enough to claim lives. Meanwhile, the expanding reach of fascism adds an element of danger beyond anything Jimmy could bring about alone, drawing clear parallels to our own troubled times.
Given its world-destroying potential, the characters’ frequently expressed longings for immortality—in the form of a painting, a dynasty, a legendary career—seem not only misguided but futile. Despite all the mess Jimmy has caused in their lives, none of it will likely matter much in the end.
It should hurt to watch such a relentlessly ruthless work. But his ferocity feels dulled when almost every character except Jimmy feels in control and almost every relationship is built on plot intrigue. The twists and turns escalate rapidly and pile up faster than we can react to them. At such a breathless pace, the nastiness feels less jarring than absurdly over-the-top, to the point where not even its ostentatiously ugly ending evokes much emotion in any direction.
Perhaps The critic I would have done well to follow the rare, serious advice Jimmy gives Nina. When asked how she could better achieve his high standards, he launches into a speech about the pitfalls of doing too much and trying too hard, making her efforts more visible than the emotions and ideas that are they should convey. “Less,” he concludes. “It is a dagger to the soul. But less is the only grade.”