London’s theatre world is the setting for The Critic, a world premiere at TIFF23 that stars Ian McKellen as the titular newspaper scribe. It’s a story that evokes the nostalgia of a time when print was king, and theatre reviews were typed up late at night and delivered by hand before the printing presses got going the next morning.
In its story of blackmail and intrigue, however, the period has echoes that resonate to our own time
As The Critic opens, David Brooke (Mark Strong) is taking over the London Chronicle after the death of his father. It’s 1934 in London, and the newspaper’s old guard includes Jimmy Erskine, the drama critics and an old reprobate played by Ian McKellen.
Brooke talks about new directions, reinvigorating the faltering paper — in short, getting rid of just the kind of florid prose and bombast that Jimmy specializes in. It doesn’t help his cause that Jimmy’s an unrepentant gay man with what we’ll call broad sexual tastes in a time when his very existence was illegal.
It turns out that Brooke is in a bad marriage, and harbours a secret flame for an actress by the name of Nina Land (Gemma Arterton), someone who’s been the subject of Jimmy’s vitriol in print on many occasions. Jimmy sees a way to secure his professional future and squeeze Nina while he’s at it. Nina, in turn, is in love with Stephen Wyley (Ben Barnes), a married painter.
What Jimmy initiates is a domino effect of unforeseen consequences that rapidly spin out of control. It’s part thriller, part drama, and at time, an excruciating character study of what people will do under pressure. In attempting to desperately keep hold of their passions in tumultuous times, Jimmy, Nina, Stephen and David all become vulnerable to their own secrets and desires, and the domino effect and inexorable fate that eventually envelops them all.
The Critic unfolds against the rise of fascism in Europe and on British soil, giving it a tone that draws parallels to our own era. It’s homophobia and intolerance that set the wheels in motion.
The Cast & Creatives
It’s the performances that make the story so compelling. Ian McKellen is perfection as Jimmy, an out-sized and unapologetic character who can’t quite see or appreciate the real dangers he’s flirting with. Jimmy’s nickname is The Beast, and he revels in both his often vicious reviews and his hedonistic lifestyle. McKellen is larger than life, and entirely convincing, in the role of an anti-hero. While the plot clearly places Jimmy in a vulnerable position, it’s also not afraid to reveal a distinctly unlikable side to his character.
Gemma Arterton draws out the vulnerability of an aging stage actress, and is perhaps the most sympathetic of the characters. Both Ben Barnes and Mark Strong make the most of less prominent roles. Strong, in particular, has a gift for conveying the tortured emotions underneath a classic British stiff upper lip.
The Critic is directed by Anand Tucker (2010’s Leap Year), and was adapted by Patrick Marber from the novel Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn. The era is evoked in dark cinematography, with period sets and costumes in a sombre palette, giving the film a distinctly theatrical look. It sets the tone for the drama that unravels.
There is one more TIFF screening on September 13; tickets here.
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