This critic might want to look for a different job.
The prospect of seeing the great Ian McKellen take on the role of one of London’s most august theater critics of the 1930s must have looked tantalizing on paper, but sadly this is a show that deserved to close out of town. Despite a colorful central character who could have knowledgeably and amusingly navigated a cruise through the dynamic theatrical scene close to a century ago, The Critic unaccountably shifts its focus away from McKellen’s Jimmy Erskin, who entertainingly dominates the film at the start, and onto a group of characters who are almost entirely uninteresting; there’s not even much juicy inside stuff about the legit theater at an exciting time for it. Given the setting, period and endless possibilities of the material, this is a major disappointment, a drag of the first order.
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The only scenes to offer even a scrap of fun and irreverence are to be found at the outset. It’s opening night and the show in question is a 17th century piece one hopes will have at least some of the dust knocked out of it. Before the lights go down, McKellen’s Erskin gets off a few juicy barbed jabs that would seem to promise much more to come along those lines.
Unfortunately, this is a misleading teaser, as Erskin is mostly sidelined the rest of the way in order to allow several other far less interesting characters take center stage. When you get an actor as brilliant as McKellen in a juicy role, you should count yourself lucky and make the most of it. In the event, it’s as if you had Oscar Wilde to a big dinner party and stuck him at the children’s table, which would undoubtedly be far more fun than anything the adults at might be going on about.
Most of the attention therefor lands upon leading lady Nina Land (Gemma Arterton) and the newly arrived David Brooke (Mark Strong), but they need to be rather furtive about their activities; you end up seeing more of the furnishings than you do of them. There’s also an affair between Nina and artist Stephen Wiley (Ben Barnes), but this relationship similarly fails to ignite much heat or interest, leaving you pining for Erskin to roar back into the room and warn them that they’re dull and might well get a bad review.
As it is, then, the film, which was directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) and adapted by Patrick Marber from the 2015 novel Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn (no, not that Anthony Quinn), muddles along with no urgency or spice.
Most of the characters fail to truly engage one’s interest and the dynamic and scary politics of the period are largely slighted, although there is a brief interlude spotlighting Roger Mosley’s fascist Black Shirts.
It all just leaves you wishing that you could just return to the theater with McKellen, who one truly does feel is terribly underused here, and bask in his unfiltered views on everything from last night’s play to the private lives of the West End’s most colorful characters.
Title: The Critic
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Director-screenwriter: Patrick Marber
Cast: Ian McKellen, Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong, Ben Barnes, Alfred Enoch, Romola Garai, Lesley Manville
Running time: 1 hr 33 min
Sales agents: UTA, CAA (U.S.), Culmination (International)
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