Film Critics


Seeing the recent critical pasting received by the film The Boys Are Back made me think about how much we all rely on film critics to inform us about what films we should and shouldn’t see – and how badly served we often are!

This is what I said about the film in my blog about the London Film Festival on Nov 6th last year: ‘a beautiful bit of story-telling,’…’ the observation of character and particularly poignant and hilarious moments in the family’s life is so well done. And writer Allan Cubitt, without, in my opinion, ever resorting to cheap sentiment, manages to wring every last drop of narrative tension from this deceptively slight story. Familiar in terms of subject matter – the tragic death of a loved partner – this is intelligent, accessible film story-telling at its best.’

Compare that to what some of the UK national newspaper critics had to say about it when it came out a few weeks ago,an insufferably cutesy film about single parenthood,’… ‘this excruciatingly artificial and prettified film,’… ‘Not one single thing, for one single moment, looks real or sincere’,… ‘A phoney, sugary tale without substance’.

But all the above quotes are taken from British reviews. Interestingly some of the international reviews have been very different.
This from ‘The Age’ (Australia) – ‘this beautifully etched, deeply moving drama’, ‘Nothing in this finely honed film feels forced or conveniently sentimental.

And this from the Hollywood Reporter:
Few films have so poignantly portrayed a father’s relationships with his sons as “The Boys Are Back,” a film by Scott Hicks that reminds you he once directed the luminescent “Shine.” For the first time since that magical feature debut, Hicks has invested heart and soul in a film project.’
‘Never does anything feel forced or contrived. Life, as this memoir reminds, can offer plenty of drama that need not abide by fictional formulas or genre conventions.

Which all goes to prove what? Well, that you take your pick but, for god’s sake, don’t take any critic’s word as gospel unless they have proved over many examples that their taste concurs pretty much exactly with yours – and even this is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case.

But for me there’s something else here – and it’s that in the UK I don’t think we’re very well-served by our national film critics. Philip French may have reached Observer-instigated National Treasure status but to me he’s the worst of the bunch. Almost everyone of his film reviews needs a spoiler alert – he ALWAYS gives the story away! Such a large proportion of each of his reviews are spent regurgitating the plot so, regardless of whether he tells you anything interesting about a film, he’s pretty much always going to take away some of the pleasure of watching a good film – he never lets you enjoy the unexpected unfolding of a story. This seems to me just rank incompetence. Surely, not giving the story away is the most basic requirement of any film review? And most of the rest of the review is him showing off with everything he knows about previously-made, similar films (which is admittedly sometimes quite entertaining).

Here’s an example. And – just to warn you – if you haven’t seen NOWHERE BOY and want to see it, DON’T READ THIS!
PF’s NOWHERE BOY review review

The critical pasting received by The Boys Are Back reminded me how all those jaded critics watch films every day of their working lives; it’s not surprising, I suppose, that they’re a bit grumpy and mean-spirited.
A load of cynical 50+ middle class white guys sitting in a preview theatre at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning probably are pretty resistant to a film that works by connecting with your emotions as well as your intellect. Thinking about it like this, it makes you understand why heartfelt, committed emotional stories or comedies (pretty much any comedies) get short shrift from these jaundiced hacks – and makes you realise why more ‘esoteric’, ‘intellectual’ films like The White Ribbon get all the plaudits. Don’t get me wrong, I thought The White Ribbon was a really good film but it was intellectually rather than emotionally engaging. And I don’t think it deserved its incomparably better reviews than The Boys Are Back.

It reminds me too of the blanket critical response to The Wire. Now The Wire has many strengths but this whole cult of criticism seems to have grown up around it which I really react against, not least because, at times, I think The Wire is (deep breath) well a little bit….boring. You see, now you’re shocked – no-one dares say anything negative about The (mighty) Wire! In fact the whole cult of how wonderful US TV drama is compared to UK drama smacks to me of ‘the grass is always greener’. I’m sure if you just took the best of UK TV drama and filtered out all the stuff that hasn’t quite worked, it would look pretty damn good. And that’s what we get over here. We get all the stuff that’s already proved successful, not the stuff that has been canned after the pilot or the first season. In my book, the first series of Criminal Justice wasn’t just as good as most US TV drama, it was better. OK rant over…

Philip Shelley
Script-consultant, Feb 2010