Friday, November 03, 2023

The Critic of Blackmail review – a devious Ian McKellen anchors uneven thriller

 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 …  

All men have secrets,” he says. “I’ll find his.”

~ Iron Curtain Call  characters in Brown shirts  

Sir Ian McKellen: “Human beings need stories to illuminate their own lives”

What happened when Sir Ian McKellen met ‘Shakespeare’? We ask the acting legend some of the Bard’s most profound questions


 During the interview, McKellen expressed excitement about playing a morally dubious character like Jimmy.

“Often the devil has the best tunes and the best lines, and it’s fun to play an outrageous man who clearly has some emotional problems.”

‘The Critic’ Review: A Ferocious Ian McKellen Is Let Down by a Script Favoring Histrionics Over Depth

Gemma Arterton and Mark Strong also star in Anand Tucker's thriller, scripted by Patrick Marber, about a writer who teams up with an actress on a blackmail plot against a newspaper editor in 1930s London.

Ian McKellen on Not Retiring, Not Being the First Choice for Gandalf and Going Evil for ‘The Critic’: ‘The Devil Has the Best Lines’

Following on from his role as a violent career criminal killing and stealing his way through London’s underbelly in the charmingly deranged thriller The Good Liar, Ian McKellen is one-upping himself by playing an even more odious figure: a critic.

In the Hilary and Jackie director Anand Tucker’s hit-and-miss thriller The Critic, Jimmy Erskine is the most feared and famous theatre critic in 1930s London, saving his most savage takedowns for Nina Land (Gemma Arterton), an already unsure leading lady. He takes pleasure in ritually tearing her down, a practice that has further eroded her fragile sense of confidence. As a gay man forever at the mercy of laws that prohibit his very existence, Jimmy is living life on the edge, indulging in rough sex in the park with strangers while showboating his flamboyance in writing. But when his newspaper’s proprietor dies and his son (Mark Strong) takes over, Jimmy is told to be careful, to avoid falling foul of his new boss by cutting down on the cattiness and when his job security becomes even more precarious, he’s forced to turn to Nina for help.

The Critic review – a devious Ian McKellen anchors uneven thriller

We have already met Freya Wyley, the main character of Anthony Quinn’s new novel, in last year’s Curtain Call, a stylish murder mystery set in the theatreland of 1930s London. In that novel, Freya was a poised and watchful 12-year-old, the daughter of a highly regarded painter; now she’s a rebellious adult. But while Quinn reunites his readers with other characters familiar from Curtain Call, such as the touchy theatre critic Jimmy Erskine, no knowledge of the earlier book is necessary to enjoy this one.
It opens amid the euphoria of VE Day with Freya, who’s recently had a supporting role in the Royal Navy, a little aloof from the excitement. She feels that her wartime experience makes her more worldly than most of her peers, and her air of self-possession impresses her callow new friend Nancy. They soon discover that as well as both heading for Oxford, they share an ambition to write for a living. They also have similar taste in men, simultaneously falling for Robert, a handsome, pushy fellow student.
Gradually we grasp that there’s a latent chemistry between Freya and Nancy, and the trio’s knotty relationship provides the novel with its impetus. Even when Robert recedes from view for a while, it’s clear that he’ll return, and each reappearance is more bumptious than the last.
The book’s appeal depends on what we make of Freya herself. Statuesque, forthright, sweary and outrageous, she often feels like a modern figure rather than someone born in the 1920s. “Attraction is just a thing that happens, like the weather,” says one of her university friends, but Freya’s attractiveness isn’t “just a thing that happens”, and whenever we begin to think she’s implausibly brilliant, Quinn slips in an incident that shows her capacity for acute charmlessness. Her misbehaviour, which includes bad choices about sexual partners and ways of venting her spleen, makes her beguiling.
Sceptical to the point of seeming insolent, Freya dabbles in student journalism and finds she has a gift for writing witty profiles of high-achieving outsiders. Of the various oddballs she meets at university, the most intriguing is Nat Fane, a restless intellectual with a liking for velvet suits, who’s clearly modelled on the flamboyant theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. (Quinn was for many years a film critic for the Independent, so his portraits of both critics and journalists feel pointed.)
But for all the extravagant magnetism of Fane, Freya’s idol is Jessica Vaux, a haughty journalist reputed to sleep with a loaded revolver under her pillow. Eventually, repelled by Oxford’s “cliquish insularity”, Freya goes to Germany, hoping to track down Vaux, who is there to cover the Nuremberg trials. Her success in securing an interview with this elusive maverick leads to a career in newspapers.
There she has to contend with sexism, the frustratingly hidebound thinking of her bosses and the chicanery of ambitious colleagues. Despite her emergence into a world of high-rise buildings and soaring optimism, she’s haunted by the experience of university, which leaves her with the unshakeable impression that at the apex of society there will always be an impenetrable cabal of smug, manipulative, callous men.
There’s plenty more to tantalise us as we move from the austere 1940s to the tumultuous 1960s — political scandal, forays into the seedy Soho underworld, snapshots of changing fashions. Quinn, who wasn’t even born when The Beatles released their first LP, has evidently gorged on recent histories of the period. And occasionally Freya feels like a covert history lesson. Do we really need another Oxford novel about bright young things — or indeed another tour of postwar Britain?
Quinn’s skill lies in picking a surprising route through familiar terrain, blurring the boundaries of fact and fiction in a style that calls to mind William Boyd. Besides being adept at marshalling period detail, he is a fluent, engaging storyteller, whose suave prose masks an unusually shrewd sense of how relationships work.
Freya, by Anthony Quinn, Jonathan Cape, RRP£14.99, 464 pages