The job of a critic is to provide recommendations for the general public based on a presumed strong understanding of art forms. In the present day, some assume that rave reviews must have been paid for and that brutal pans indicate a preexisting vendetta against someone or something. A story set almost a century ago, long before the rise of TikTok influencers, may have a period feel but covers many of the same themes. Anand Tucker’s The Critic presents a glamorous portrait of an old-fashioned theater critic and the lengths he’s willing to go to in order to remain relevant.
Ian McKellen stars as Jimmy Erskine, a revered employee of The Daily Chronicle who has been with the paper for four decades. The death of its publisher puts his son, David Brooke (Mark Strong), in charge, and Jimmy is immediately put on notice. Ripping to shreds an actress Brooke finds enchanting does not sit well with him, and Jimmy, never one to recant or apologize for what he’s written, hatches a plan that will be mutually beneficial to him and the star in question, Nina Land (Gemma Arterton).
There’s a lot going on in a film that could easily have featured far fewer subplots. Nina is devastated by the review Jimmy writes and she comes to confront him, telling him that she was inspired to become an actress because of him. He’s not someone who has become more grumpy and vindictive as he’s gotten older, but instead a writer who he believes does his readership a service by entertaining them (he also suggests the readers can’t read when he’s told to replace a highfalutin word no one will understand). Jimmy is gay, something that’s illegal but apparently an open secret, and there are multiple affairs going on that also seem to be less covert than they should be.
To review this film about someone who writes reviews for a living presents a particularly inviting challenge, since much of its content pokes all-too-accurate fun at the nature of criticism. Jimmy enjoys eviscerating that which he doesn’t find impressive, deeming it more important for him to warn audiences off a lackluster production than to completely destroy the egos of everyone involved. While there’s some merit to that, Jimmy proves himself not to be a terribly moral person, letting down his high standards for quality when he stoops to blackmail to try to keep his position. This film manages to push back against the negativity often found among disgruntled reviewers without accusing them all of illicit behavior.
McKellen, who couldn’t attend the film’s TIFF screenings because he was performing on stage back home, continues to be a powerhouse at 84-years-old. First seen smoking in the bathtub, his performance is reminiscent of Peter O’Toole in Venus and the film gives him ample opportunity to chew scenery. Opposite McKellen, Arterton delivers just as well, pouring her passion into Nina and embedding a great deal of emotion in every scene. They’re aided by a supporting cast that includes Strong, Ben Barnes, Romola Garai, and Lesley Manville in memorable roles.
Tucker, no stranger to period prices, guides an exquisite-looking film that finds beauty in darkness, frequently showing its characters inside at night. Watching them attend a play and look around for the sight of this notorious critic evokes another era, and the wardrobe and sets assist that aesthetic greatly. Though its plot follows a course that might be dissected or likelier ridiculed in one of Jimmy’s infamous reviews, it remains hypnotic and involving the entire time, offering an important reminder that those who critique for a living should never allow themselves to become part of the story.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.