The Critic, directed by Anand Tucker, premiered at TIFF with several stars in attendance: Ben Barnes, Gemma Arterton and Alfred Enoch. In this historical drama, Ian McKellen plays Jimmy Erksine, a queer theatre critic in 1936 facing dismissal following the death of the newspaper owner and his son, David Brooke (Mark Strong), taking the reigns. The Critic take place during a unique point of history in London, England, when pre-WWII fascism was on the rise even in the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) as well as the Allied Powers (Great Britain, United States, Soviet Union, etc.)—a distinction often left out of history lessons.
Jimmy (McKellen) is harsh, crude and hard to please as far as theatre critics go and thus, his column is sensationalized and something readers return to for shock value. Alas, this brutalist writing constantly rains down on actress Nina Land (Arterton), whom audiences admire but lack critical acclaim. Her desperate seeking for his approval lands the two in hot water with a devious plan to blackmail and bribe Jimmy’s secured position at the paper.
Not only do we witness this vile manipulation through McKellen’s superb performance, but he also endeavours to garner our sympathy for his lonely and secretive lifestyle as a gay man in 1930s London. It’s a harsh and nuanced tale that presents us with a queer villain, which once we may have been taught to hate unequivocally but today see for the complicated human with little to stand on.
The Critic also attempts to touch on racism at this time by including Jimmy’s assistant/roommate/lover, Tom Tunner (Alfred Enoch), and the specific hardships he faces, of which Jimmy seems either ignorant or dismissive. Nevertheless, this element is given far less attention and blends into the background of McKellen’s star blazing throughout the film.
For all the interconnected storytelling and twisting of character relations The Critic strives to achieve, there inevitably seems a somewhat lack of shock value for Nina’s lover is actually Stephen Wyly (Ben Barnes), who so happens to be the brother-in-law of David Brooke (Mark Strong) the man Jimmy wishes to blackmail into submission for whom Nina is convinced to seduce. It all looks a jumble, but it seems a little predictable as the story plays out.
The Critic becomes interesting as subsequent deaths accumulate due to this devious plan. However, because heads don’t start to roll until the later part of the film, The Critic felt unbalanced and, until the ending, quite predictable as a historical British melodrama. As gasp-worthy as the end becomes, I’m not sure it saves the rest of the film’s drag.
Of course, despite the story’s premise, the performances were impeccable. Ian McKellen is an all-star, genuinely giving 110% for an exceptionally well-crafted lead and villain. There is so much to dig your teeth into with McKellen’s portrayal of Jimmy with his quirks, attitude and terrible manners. Mark Strong is quiet and well cast, giving much of the same we see from him, although with more softness than I knew him capable.
Gemma Arterton is also immaculate; she takes her character from faithfully following orders to sparing with McKellen, and it’s impressive to watch. Arterton has excellent talent; she balances her character’s complicated emotions and situation with delicacy and paints a beautiful picture of a hopeful young actress maturing into the desperation of approval and want for success.
Arterton and Ben Barnes’ chemistry is well-cast. Barnes does a fine job matching the calibre of acting around him. Despite his best efforts, though they are amicable, his performance was in wanting something more profound than he delivered. He captured the right emotions and levelled up to his co-stars, yet there is a lack of substance in his performance that he has been capable of delivering before.
I wish there were more for Alfred Enoch to do in this film because I found his scenes with McKellen a pleasure to watch. The two flowed together seamlessly and played off one another, which appeared so natural, as though they had known each other for years. So much history and understanding was built into their relationship; I wish there were more to consume.
The Critic is a fine film, and I’m sure I will recommend it to my mother, but in this day and age of cinema, I feel that it could have pushed the bounds a smidge further and achieved a much more remarkable and rich story.