If you want to give a great actor a role he can sink his teeth into with almost unseemly glee, there can’t be many better ways than to cast him as a critic in a period melodrama. That, at least, seems to be the idea behind “The Critic,” Anand Tucker’s tale of a nefarious theater reviewer in 1930s London starring Ian McKellen as the kind of awful person who must have been a lot of fun to play.
It is not, perhaps, a role that would challenge the magnificent McKellen much, but who needs a challenge when you can spit out viciously witty bon mots while wearing fancy duds and being lit at all times for maximum dramatic effect? And while McKellen’s Jimmy Erskine is a villain to remember, he isn’t a one-dimensional baddie. He’s a proudly gay man who can be arrested for who he is and who’d rather wear his bitchy wit as armor than cower or hide.
As the film begins in 1934, the problem for Jimmy is that the man who hired him as the theater critic for the Chronicle in London has just died, and that man’s son and heir, David Brooke (Mark Strong) isn’t particularly keen on hanging onto the paper’s longest-running writers who have been known to get a little drunk at lunchtime and who’ve come to consider themselves invulnerable.
“He’s been cutting the old guard, and he’s not so keen on you,” a colleague warns Jimmy. “Nor does he like your proclivities. Be careful.”
But Jimmy, nicknamed “the Monster” and feared by the theatrical community, can’t imagine that he’s in danger or that he should be more discreet. Purposely grandiose in manner and prone to sweeping into theaters, ignoring the public whom he sees as not worthy of his attention and sharpening his mental thesaurus secure in the knowledge that he’s come to bury the poor actors onstage, not to praise them. He mocks the over-the-top melodramas of the day with zest, more or less ignorant to the fact that he’s turned himself into a character every bit as excessive as the folks he’s criticizing on the stage.
After one particularly vicious pan of a show that Brooke loved, he gets a summons from the boss. “Jimmy,” Brooke says. “Tone it down.”
“The unpleasantness. The extravagance… The extremity of your style.”
“That’s why people read me!”
Brooke leaves him with another cautionary note: “Don’t break the law, don’t cause a stink. More beauty, less beast. Final warning.”
But Jimmy doesn’t pay much attention to warnings and before long he’s arrested during a tryst in the park with a male sex worker. He’s given one month’s notice, but after an initial bout of pillow-hugging despair, he starts plotting to find something he can hold over Brooke. “All men have secrets,” he says. “I’ll find his.”
That’s where actress Nina Land (Gemma Arterton) comes in. She’d already confronted Jimmy over a particularly vicious review, confessing, “I grew up reading you. I wanted to act because of you. I so wanted to meet your standards, but you think I’m appalling.”
“There is art in you, Miss Land,” he says, oozing with what he no doubt thinks of as generosity. “My disappointment is in your failure to access it.”
But Jimmy, it turns out, needs Miss Land’s art because Brooke, who’s married with a grown daughter, is also obsessed with the actress. That’s his secret, and his secret weakness, so Jimmy hatches a plot that he presents to Nina: If she sleeps with his boss, he’ll make her a star.
At that point, “The Critic” begins to ramp up its own descent into melodrama. Where last year’s period look at a British gentleman of a certain age, “Living,” was exceptionally low key and delicate, this film turns into a potboiler that grows darker and crazier as Jimmy becomes more devious and vicious. McKellen is often shot from above, his face bathed in artfully arranged shadows while the sound of itchy, insistent strings suggest that things are getting seriously dark.
The movie leans into the melodrama, taking its time and milking the situation for all its worth. And as Jimmy begins to really live up to that nickname, “the Monster,” the film brings in some true monsters in the person of the British Union of Fascists, a violent antisemitic and anti-gay faction that began to rise in England in the mid 1930s.
It feels odd to drop these Nazi sympathizers into what has become a pulpy melodrama, but “The Critic” isn’t terribly worried about striking a consistent tone; director Tucker and screenwriter Patrick Marber (“Notes on a Scandal”) are having too much fun whipping up the froth and giving it a sleek, noirish sheen. The supporting cast have fun with it, too: Arterton holds her own as a woman who has to figure out the literal price of fame, while Lesley Manville doesn’t have many scenes as Nina’s mother, but she’s a grounding and sometimes wrenching presence when she does show up.
But let’s face it, this is the Ian McKellen show and he makes Jimmy simultaneously despicable, understandable and wholly entertaining. When he gets ahold of this part, there’s nothing a critic can do but nod in approval.