There are several reasons why we at Flickbook have made a regular feature out of attacking the film criticism of Peter Bradshaw. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and I’m really proud of that photo-shopped staff photo of his face. Sadly, the main reason is that it’s also entirely, unavoidably justified. His reviews currently being published in The Guardian are so utterly devoid of insight or effort that it would be a dereliction of duty not to sarcastically categorise their faults on a semi-regular basis.
I say “currently” because the other day I happened to read a review he wrote back in 2001, and was horrified to discover that it was actually “a review”. Could it be that Peter Bradshaw really was once a coherent, witty, insightful critic? Has his rise to eminence amongst British reviewers merely stunted a genuine talent? In the interests of scientific discovery, from here on every Bradshaw review we pick apart will be balanced by a sincere look at one of his “Bradshaw Classic” pieces. Hopefully, somewhere, we can determine where it all went so horribly wrong.
To parallel this examination of a promising career before it was derailed by fame, we will start with Peter’s reviews of Christopher Nolan’s first three films.
Sticking to our familiar format, let’s see what insights Bradshaw gleaned from his review of Nolan’s Hollywood debut – excluding basic plot details which he reveals out of necessity:
- The film is a follow-up to Nolan’s first effort, The Following. Bradshaw describes this, with carefully measured enthusiasm, as having left “a strange tentacular growth” in his mind – a striking way of describing an experience we can all relate to
- The film is what might happen if “Oliver Sacks wanted to write something in the style of Raymond Chandler,” Peter writes. Although it’s a casual comment, one of the key inspirations for Memento’s plot was in fact an episode from Oliver Sacks’ clinical memoir The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985). Whether he was aware of it or not, Peter here touches on a real, fundamental connection
- Peter theorises that the appearance and disappearance of wounds in the film is a “key motif,” raising questions which are answered “in fragments” throughout the film. Nolan’s use of wounds reminds of an episode of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner – another offhand but intuitively relevant comment. Nolan would later reveal himself to be a devoted fan of the show, going so far as to attach himself to a doomed theatrical remake at one point
- Peter goes so far as to call Nolan a “heavyweight director” on the strength of the film. This may seem obvious now, but there were plenty of critics and audience-members who essentially wrote the film off as a generic thriller with a great gimmick – style over substance. When Bradshaw made the claim, it was a fairly bold one.
The disturbing pattern continues in Peter’s review of Insomnia, Nolan’s flawed but memorable follow-up. It’s worth noting that although he breathlessly awards the film five stars, and opens by calling it “The Big Sleep for a new generation,” the hyperbole here actually does some to result from genuine enthusiasm rather than laziness. During the review:
- Al Pacino’s aging grandeur is described in haphazard terms which give a vivid sense of his appearance, and how it relates to his performance: “puffy, lionised… frazzled…virile…rangy…eyelids that look as if they could be pulled out about six inches from his head”
- The relationship between Pacino’s grizzled cop and Hilary Swank’s young rookie is neither fatherly, nor totally asexual – a complex but accurate observation, expressed very deftly. Peter takes the lack of romantic overtones in their relationship as expressing Pacino’s character – “strip-mined of ordinary emotion by life and by the job”
- Robin Williams is applauded for his role as the villain, “a superbly effective performance in its restraint”. He picks up on and poetically describes an integral physical aspect of the performance – a “rat-trap mouth…sealed shut with smug satisfaction”. Williams, he adds, gives off an ”edgy, psychotic distaste for his own sexual infatuation with the dead girl”. Spot on
- Bradshaw describes the intense one-on-one scenes between Pacino and Williams as “Michael Mann-style head-to-head clashes”. Though he may just be reacting to the presence of Pacino, in later interviews Nolan would identify Mann as one of his major stylistic role-models – possibly another remarkable flourish of intuitive dot-joining.
Peter’s review of Batman Begins sees a new note of hesitance creeping into his attitude towards Nolan, which might result from a lack of respect for the source material. However, the inexplicable cascade of genuine observation and commentary just doesn’t stop:
- Bradshaw muses that the Batcave could be seen as “a subterranean expression of the dank hellhole that is Gotham City above, with its stalagmite-skyscrapers and urban vermin”. A bit on-the-nose, but perfectly valid. POW!!
- Peter is disappointed that there is ”little in it stylistically to show that Nolan was in charge, as opposed to just any competent director”. Although this particular judgment is quite wrong, it is crucial to note that Peter has made a judgment about an aspect of the film’s overall creative style, and written it down. SPLATT!!
- Peter recognises Lucy Russell from Nolan’s The Following in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, and laments that she did not play the love interest instead of “the callow…Katie Holmes”. Here, Bradshaw simultaneously shows that he’s paying close attention to events on-screen, and makes a tough-but-fair judgment about the miscasting of a central role. WHAM!!
- Despite his clear lack of familiarity with the comics, ‘Classic Bradshaw’ has either bothered to do some research, or uses his trademark intuition to correctly identify the paroling of Joe Chill as an “interesting new twist” on Batman’s origin. As he points out, Chill’s release and subsequent death complicates the protagonist’s relationship to his traumatic childhood, sending him off to “brood on who the real bad guys are”. CHUNT!!
- Peter describes the character of Bruce Wayne’s father as “an FDR-style patrician liberal,” which neatly conveys the film’s ambiguous portrayal of him as privileged, paternalistic, and somehow pathetic. Later, he notes that a key point of Christian Bale’s performance is that it expresses “ambiguous loathing [for] a father who failed to stand up for himself”. This touches on one of the richest thematic veins in the film – a terrible choice between two paragons of masculinity, one of whom is “good” but effectively useless, the other “evil” but ruthlessly effective. Bradshaw doesn’t go into detail about this, but he doesn’t have to. It is enough that he saw it, and wrote it down. WANK!!
So many questions. I don’t have any answers. Not yet. All I know is, the reviews written above were not written by the same man currently filing copy under Bradshaw’s byline. The bizarre thing isn’t that the man was once capable of genuinely insightful, enjoyable film writing – that was apparent from his popularity and success, which only makes sense to me now I’ve seen his earlier work. The real mystery is where that Peter Bradshaw has gone, and whether he can ever come back?
We will continue cataloguing Bradshaw’s body of work – the “good,” the “bad,” and the “not-technically-work” – with renewed vigor, in hopes that it might contain some answers.
Nolan himself is fresh out of chances, however. There’s no way I’m paying to sit through another three-hour long undergraduate Comparative Literature essay about itself.
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