The Critic has immaculate production design and a promising start but takes a shocking swerve to distract from its initial messaging.
“More beauty; less beast”. These are the words given by David Brooke (Mark Strong) to the Daily Chronicle’s premiere theater critic Jimmy Erksine (Ian McKellen) in the movie The Critic. They were instructions for Erksine to be less savage and less contradictory in his work. They could just as well apply to the movie itself, which starts off with one storyline, and swerves into another with little warning. There is beauty here, but most of it is a bit mishandled.
Set in England on the eve of World War II, The Critic is about Jimmy and his scathing reviews of the theater world. One actress in particular, Nina Land (Gemma Arterton), is not pleased with the criticism and bites back at Jimmy. The two begin to connect a little, and learn more about each other as Jimmy learns to write and Nina gives him what he wants. Patrick Marber’s script, adapted from Anthony Quinn’s 2015 novel “Curtain Call,” is great at delivering dry British wit and building character. Each line in the movie feels expertly timed and picked for just the right inflection. The setpieces all look period-appropriate, sucking viewers into the world director Anand Tucker has created.
Ian McKellen lives it up in the fitting role of a theater critic. This is perhaps the part he was born to play, as his own personal knowledge of the theater came in handy when knowing how to critique it for his character. The reviews he publishes are some of the best parts of the script, and hearing Jimmy’s flowery language will resonate with any reviewers in the audience, as they themselves may have had similar thoughts with the movies they have to watch. Gemma Arterton herself makes a statement with her performance. Her sarcasm and bravado capture perfectly an actress who believes she has more talent than she does.
The movie loses traction right as it goes into the second half. Once Jimmy tries to blackmail Nina by having her ask sexual favors from her co-star (Ben Barnes), it becomes a different movie. The humor focuses on melodrama, and it becomes less fun overall. Then, Jimmy becomes broiled in conspiracy, and the movie becomes a political thriller. Kidnappings, extortion, and sad character ends feel jarring. This could have worked had the tone and overall flair of the writing carried over, but this movie goes from comedy to war drama with little foreshadowing.
The Critic has all the makings of a great movie, but fumbles the ball towards the end. For the moments when it is about a critic, it shines, but for the rest it confuses and bewilders. The two performances from theater veterans hold the piece together, and the overall focus on the main character keeps it from crashing and burning. Overall, it manages to settle for “pretty good” and is worth watching exactly once, to get a feel for how the film eases into its big twist. It has some beastly moments, but when it focuses on its beauty, it is engaging and delightful. There should have been just a bit more beauty involved.
The Critic premiered at TIFF on September 11, 2023. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival!