Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve has ably demonstrated that a catty feud between theater critics and actresses is crackling subject matter for witty, adult entertainment. Anand Tucker’s The Critic follows a similar premise and, auspiciously, recruited playwright Patrick Marber––a well-known luminary of the British theater scene––to pen a script packed with sharp, acerbic dialog. This, still, is not half-enough. In its quest to surprise audiences, The Critic jumps down too many rabbit holes, progressively losing all semblance of plausibility or insight it might’ve otherwise yielded.
The film is being billed as an adaptation of Anthony Quinn’s well-regarded novel Curtain Call, though one glance at the book summary indicates that significant liberties have been taken––notably, a murder-mystery strand has been entirely jettisoned. What we have instead is an interpersonal drama between several personalities either directly or tangentially related to the theater. Chief among them is the Daily Chronicle’s Jimmy Erskine (Ian McKellen), a snooty, preening, one-man demolition machine who can wreck careers and destroy productions with a single line in his caustic reviews.
The latest target of his ire is working-class actress Nina Land (Gemma Arterton), whom he obliterates for her performance in John Webster’s The White Devil. Conversely, an admirer is the Daily Chronicle’s new owner David Brooke (Mark Strong), who has recently come into the possession of the paper after his father’s death and finds Erskine’s nastiness distasteful. Completing the quarter of four principals is painter Stephen Wyley (Ben Barnes), who has been contracted to paint a portrait of Erskine for the paper. When Erskine is about to face the boot over his writing and sexual impropriety, he hatches a complicated bargain with Land to save both their careers.
One narrative strategy in The Critic is to obfuscate the exact connections between the four leads and only disclose them late in the game as surprising “reveals” or “twists.” It is a reasonable choice, given that the story otherwise is trope-y and conventional and doesn’t generate any particular interest on its own. Elsewhere, the film tries to tack on some topicality by adding in the “Blackshirts” of the extremist movement British Union of Fascists as peripheral antagonists for Erskine. Erskine is portrayed as a promiscuous, predatory gay man who uses his decades-younger black personal assistant Tom Tunner (Alfred Enoch) for sex. At one point, the two are attacked by the Blackshirts and arrested for sodomy.
The Critic exacerbates its narrative stumbles in the last act, taking one left turn too many while racking up a surprisingly high body count. By here all control is lost of tone: what started as a satirical farce morphs into a grim, self-serious polemic the film doesn’t have nearly enough gravitas to manage. It only furthers the impression that the picture is indifferently, carelessly designed and wouldn’t reward any deeper engagement from audiences. Tucker hasn’t directed in thirteen years and Marber hasn’t written for the screen in even longer; rustiness is evident in the pedestrian, televisual staging, and improbable plot construction.
McKellen manages to rise above the material in a performance of such self-conscious largesse it might as well be delivered from Graham Norton’s talk-show couch. He’s hammy and monstrous but also entertaining––the only justification for this film’s existence. He’s also able to handle Marber’s rarefied lines better than most others. When approached by a fan in the theater lobby, he imperiously upbraids his handlers, “I must be protected from the general public.” Arterton doesn’t quite have McKellen’s facility with arch, period dialogue and comes across stagey and stilted. We must unkindly ponder whether her casting as a terrible actress was a deliberate, ironic gesture by the filmmakers. Strong is sympathetic and dignified as the straight man ensnared in the swirling stratagem being spun about him.
The Critic is mercifully brief but still protracted. Appeal will be limited to older audiences attracted by McKellen’s name and the subject matter who will be fed mildly diverting streaming content.
The Critic premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.