Film critics are often the shadowy figures at the edge of a glamorous industry. However much effort a writer puts into a careful assessment of a film’s merits and flaws, few readers will glance at the byline to identify the writer of a review. However, one of the most well-known reviewers in the small world of British film criticism is Peter Bradshaw. The Guardian’s film critic since 1999, he approaches film criticism with both scientific rigour and artistic flair. In one star reviews, he applies his paint-stripper-like wit to uncovering the flaws of Hollywood’s most fatuous outpourings.
His review of the Julia Roberts self-discovery adventure Eat Pray Love, for example, manages to mock the title’s triple imperative structure in every sentence to chart the unfortunate viewer’s growing breakdown in the cinema: “Eat own fist, pray for death, love the rushing sense of imminent darkness.” At the other end of the spectrum, his five star reviews of the films he loves make you want to drop whatever you’re doing and run to the nearest cinema. Boyhood, for instance – which he tells me is his favourite film he’s watched professionally, although “I’ll probably change my mind in the next five minutes,” – he urges the reader to see because its greatness renders all other films in the coming-of-age genre “obsolete”.
Bradshaw explains that he got into his career “sort of by accident. I was a journalist on the London Evening Standard when I left university. I did almost everything and I wrote about almost everything, but weirdly I never actually reviewed films. What happened was that I had a strange stroke of luck. I had a kind of moment in the spotlight because I wrote a sort of spoof diary of the Tory MP Alan Clark, and he sued me, and it became a huge deal.” When the controversy led to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger calling him “out of the blue” and inviting him to become the paper’s film critic, “I thought all my Christmases had come at once, and I said ‘Yes’ straight away without having to think about it.”
He knew exactly how he wanted to approach his new position: “I certainly felt that I needed to start the way I meant to go on, which is being quite forthright, and saying when I didn’t like something, but also saying when I did like something. At the time it was a tiny bee in my bonnet that arts journalism seems to operate in a sort of bland middle ground where people go with the flow a bit. I was basically determined not to take a film at its own estimation of itself, not to say ‘This is what this film wants us to think’.”
Bradshaw’s consistent willingness to go against the grain of critical opinion never feels like controversy for the sake of attention. Rather, he seems to analyse what’s going on beneath the screen with a keenness that sometimes lets him see flaws that have eluded everyone else. Most recently, for instance, he tells me that he considers the warmly reviewed Testament of Youth “a film drowning in its own good taste.”
Sometimes his trenchant reviews have drawn angry responses from those involved in the film-making process themselves, for example, when he gave the 2009 film The Reader a one star review. He explains now that he “thought it was very preposterous and rather middlebrow and rather glib”. His criticism originated from the film excusing the actions of its main character Hanna (Kate Winslet), a former Auschwitz guard. This prompted the film’s screenwriter, Sir David Hare, to sarcastically suggest that Bradshaw didn’t understand the moral dilemmas engendered by life under the Nazis: “Clearly film critics should have been running Austria at the time.”
Likewise, in 2013, director James Gray called Bradshaw’s negative review of his period drama The Immigrant “one of the dumbest reviews I’ve ever read,” and Bradshaw “a failure as a critic”, pointing out that a scene that Bradshaw called implausible is one that really had happened. He’s stoic about such debates: “David Hare was rather nettled by my review and he had his say, which is fair enough. I was genuinely sad [about The Immigrant controversy] because James Gray is a filmmaker I admire, he’s a brilliant man. I have actually met him and had a long conversation after his film The Yards came out. On a point of factual accuracy, I’m quite prepared to admit that he’s right and I’m wrong – he is, after all, the one who’s done the research into the subject. But after all, there was something very treacly about that movie. I’m a believer in free speech. If I’m allowed to criticise, people are allowed to criticise me back.”
Has Bradshaw ever disagreed with his own reviews upon re-watching a film? “There are two occasions where that’s happened.” The first was with Raúl Ruiz’ Proust adaptation Time Regained – he gave it a bad review after watching it at an early morning screening at Cannes, and had to eat his words when he saw it again in London and realised it was “a great film”. The other was less highbrow: The Devil Wears Prada. After writing a two star review when the film first came out, Bradshaw enjoyed it more when he saw it again on television. “I thought ‘Why did I have to be so up myself and snotty-nosed?’”
However much thought he puts into his reviews, there are limits as to how much influence he has in the industry as a whole. I’m interviewing Bradshaw the same week as the Oscar nominations are announced. In his response on the Guardian website, he jokingly claims he wanted to throw a tantrum at the lack of nominations for Mr Turner and Selma. Awards season, he tells me, is “A time of year when critics are of least interest to the industry. When the movie comes out companies are very keen for them to get good reviews, but once they’re in the running critics are pretty marginalised.”
Could it be argued that the role of a film critic in itself is ‘pretty marginalised’ these days? I put to him the familiar maxim that the rise of the internet will mean the death of professional criticism – when people can turn to their Twitter feed for a round of opinions on a film, what’s the point of print publications using their dwindling revenues to pay critics to act as high priests of deciding cultural quality? He responds with a robust defence of his profession. “I’ve been hearing that now for about 16 years, almost as long as I’ve been doing this job, and weirdly that debate has been accompanied by a sense that it must be terribly important, for us to be going on and about it. The role of the critic is to stimulate discussion and debate and to be an evangelist for what he or she thinks is good.
The critic has to fulfil the role of an analyst or a psychoanalyst or a theoretician in deconstructing the things which are good and the things which are bad, and bring that debate to the cinema.”