I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into The Critic at TIFF 2023. The description had me expecting a movie about a blackmail mystery, but what I got was so much more complex and personal that it made me question everything I knew about who to root for or even what I would accept from a protagonist.
The Critic follows Jimmy Erskine (Ian McKellen), the esteemed theatre critic for the Daily Chronicle; now, at the tail end of his career, he is willing to do anything to keep his job, his lifestyle, and his sense of power. With his old boss now dead, his son, David Brooke (Mark Strong), has taken control of the paper and is looking to make some changes. Fortunately, while genuinely a good man, David has a secret obsession with a woman who has seemingly faced the brunt of Jimmy’s criticism, Nina Land (Gemma Arterton). While she may have faced the brunt of the criticism, there is no one she would rather see love her work than Jimmy.
With all the pieces in place and the web of intrigue set up, The Critic works to break your faith in humanity and everything you think you know. Jimmy Erskine twists characters around his finger as he works to secure his place in history and is willing to throw anyone in his way under the bus. What started out as a simple job as a critic for a newspaper quickly became a game of cat and mouse where everyone is doomed to fail in one way or another.
The Critic is a movie that is hard to discuss in detail without spoilers, but I will try my best to explain what makes this movie so heartbreaking. Ian McKellen as Jimmy is as insidious as he is likable. Not since Richard III has Ian McKellen been so despicable and yet so charming. Ian McKellen delivers a masterful performance as Jimmy, showing how he is endearing and how despicable the inner shell of the man really is. It is a nuanced performance that shows the true depth of the actor, one that is hard to look away from even as you seethe with hatred for his actions.
“Not since Richard III has Ian McKellen been so despicable and yet so charming.”
Gemma Arterton delivers a nuanced and complex performance as a struggling, aging actor, with her genuine love for Jimmy very clear. With each scathing review, you can see Nina Land slowly breaking down, her emotion and suffering on full display for the audience to devour in all its raw brutality. This woman has struggled to get where she is, and his greed and insecurity leave Jimmy too blind to see how much suffering he is inflicting with every word he puts on the page.
It is honestly hard to watch and even harder to review, as Jimmy’s actions challenge my own critical voice. It is so easy to tear a movie (or play) apart but so much harder to draw true critical conclusions about what could be done better and how people put their lives on the line to bring these performances to life. The callous nature with which Jimmy views his job is made clear, as his grasp on power and influence is often seen as far more important than the plays he reviews or the people he hurts.
This disregard for the people he hurts translates into his ability to throw anyone away in order to achieve his goals. While he may seem charming at first, his depravity is on full display as the film progresses. What seemed like a simple mistake quickly turns into something much darker, with human lives and even the people who hold him in high esteem only serving as pawns in the meat grinder of his own ambition.
“Despite my gripes, The Critic serves as a testament to acting prowess and how a performance can elevate an average movie to something great.”
Frankly, if I had to look only at the story and acting, The Critic would easily be one of the best films I had the pleasure of seeing at this year’s TIFF 2023, and it was my first screening of the festival. Unfortunately, the film’s visuals had to be as much a part of the experience as everything else, and it ultimately felt uninspired. Nothing was bad, per se, but nothing pushed the envelope in terms of style, set design, or concept. It felt more like a made-for-TV British drama than a feature film designed to grab the attention of TIFF audiences.
From the simple set design to the subdued location shooting, I never felt transported into the world of the movie, feeling like an outsider looking in. It managed to do enough to set the stage for the events that unfolded but never felt like it was able to rise above the bare minimum.
This could be seen as a good thing, as it puts the actors and their performances first and never takes away from what they bring to the screen, but to me, it felt very derivative and failed to set the stage for the action that unfolded. From the CGI establishing shots to the way it never does a great job of securing a sense of place or time, The Critic ultimately felt simplistic in a way that detracted from the concept the movie was trying to convey.
Despite my gripes, The Critic serves as a testament to acting prowess and how a performance can elevate an average movie to something great. With performances from Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong, and, of course, the great Ian McKellen, it is a movie that is hard to look away from, with gut-wrenching moments that will make you question your understanding of morality. It may not be perfect, but these are the performances I come to TIFF for, and The Critic does not disappoint. This is a movie that shows what actors at the top of their game can look like, and it will leave you shaken as you walk away from its final devastating moments.