Tag Archives: Frankenstein

Taking French leave: Mark Kermode appointed new Observer film critic

17 Aug

Image

So Mark Kermode, 50, has just been appointed as the Observer’s film critic, replacing the venerable Philip French who retired after turning 70. While this may not do that much for lowering the age range of film critics (I often find myself the youngest person in the preview cinemas when I review movies, and I’m no wunderkind), it is a Very Good Thing, because Mark is a Very Good Thing.

A personal anecdote to explain why. One Tuesday night 20-plus years ago at Time Out, before I became editor and was still on the subs’ desk, I noticed young Mark lowering his trademark quiff over the new issue and comparing his printed review with the original copy on his screen.

Accustomed to writers complaining about their deathless prose being rearranged, I went over and asked if something was the matter. And he said something that, I swear, I have never heard before or since in nearly 30 years of journalism.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’m looking at how my copy has been improved, so that I can learn from it.”

I knew then he would go far. And learn he has. But he has never lost the fearlessness with which he first turned up at Time Out’s offices with a fistful of cuttings from Manchester’s City Life, claiming (falsely) to have an appointment with film editor Geoff Andrew.

And if you don’t think fearlessness is the single most important quality in a critic, here’s another anecdote. At the opening night dinner for the London Film Festival in 1994, I sat with a table of editors and critics all slagging off that evening’s Gala Premiere, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, starring Robert De Niro. Hang on, I said to one national critic who was joining in the general bashing, I saw your review. You said it was brilliant, and gave it four stars.

“Of course,” he said, unabashed. “It’s British. It’s Kenneth Branagh. The editor and the paper wanted a good review.”

Mark, I’m pretty sure, would never, ever, ever, ever alter a review. Unless he changed his mind himself, as he admits to doing on a second viewing of Blue Velvet in his excellent autobiography. (The autobiography is called It’s Only a Movie, it’s very funny, and I heartily recommend it. Especially for the chapter on the press trip from hell in the depths of Russia. And the one on how he was with Werner Herzog when he got shot in the arse.) Whether or not you agree that The Exorcist is the best movie of all time, you have to admire Mark’s conviction in sticking with it.

Mark’s appointment is also A Good Thing in that it reverses a trend for newspapers to treat arts criticism as disposable: something to be dispensed with altogether (the Independent on Sunday has fired its critics en masse, effective next month), or passed around favoured columnists. Mark has a passion for the pictures. Too much so for the BBC, who passed over Mark for Claudia Winkleman as a replacement for Jonathan Ross in 2010 on their flagship film programme.

“I don’t do moderation,” Mark explained on his Radio 5 show at the time, adding that the BBC would need “a mainstream sensibility”.

Congratulations to the Observer for appointing someone equally at home with horror and sci-fi as with European art cinema. And here’s to the next 20 years of Sundays.

Advertisements

The Cumberbatch tapes, #1: the birth of Sherlock

8 May

64315_348155021950945_1856050739_n

It’s three years since I spent a very enjoyable hour and a half above a pub in Soho with an emerging actor called Benedict Cumberbatch, interviewing him for a cover feature in the Saturday Times. Since then he has become a household name as Sherlock, got talent-spotted by Steven Spielberg for War Horse, played both Frankenstein and his monster for Danny Boyle at the National, voiced Smaug in The Hobbit, and now his angular face stares at us from a broken and burning London on the posters for Star Trek Into Darkness (above, click here for review).

Since the world obviously can’t get enough of this brainbox (he’s even played Stephen Hawking), geek sex-symbol and otter-impersonator, I’ve dusted down my interview transcript. Reading back over it I’m impressed, just as I was at the time, at how articulate he is. So I’m going to reprint extracts of our conversation entirely in his own words. Starting with Sherlock:

On the modern setting: “The challenges in a world where observation through surveillance, where detection through science, where publications and communications through media can all be turned against him make it a far more dangerous world for Sherlock to be in, so he has to be faster and ten times more practical than his Victorian incarnation.

“The idea is that Sherlock Holmes is the origination of all modern detectives, so to try and see whether he still has a workplace in the 21st century is a worthwhile experiment. He was a forerunner in forensic fields, he started experimenting with footprint and fingerprint analysis and bloodstain analysis and cigarette ash which he wrote monographs about, and he’s now in a world where all of that has been brought fully up to speed and where you have any number of brilliant maverick detectives who are brilliant at their job who have all been inspired by him, whether it’s Cracker, Tennyson, Rebus, who knock about with a bottle or some kind of addiction or personal quirk that means they’re slightly outside of their social realm. Luther is very similar, House is very much a Sherlock Holmes personality.”

Benedict speaks as though Sherlock is a real person, I say. “He’s real to me, yeah of course, it has to be. He is an icon, so there’s an element of him where he is a logo, and that is two-dimensional, and to escape stereotype you have to get some kind of understanding of who he is. So you do associate something very personable to him, and you start to think about him in real terms. And there’s such a massive wealth of detective stories that Conan Doyle wrote, he feels quite substantial. Abbey National or whatever bank it is still get letters to 221b asking for help with a missing cat or dead relative.”

On Martin Freeman as Watson (who of course is now also with Cumberbatch in The Hobbit): “I just adore him, we get on very well. He’s such a fine actor, and by fine I mean it in that very carefully beautifully nuanced way, he is a very delicate screen actor, and though he can do comedy at the drop of a hat he is achingly real as well as Watson, this man who is slightly lost in the civilian world, traumatised by his experience of war but also slightly in thrall to it, and missing the adrenaline of it. Also he’s an audience figure, an Everyman through which people can meet [Sherlock] this rather strange, modern Victorian Gothic, slightly character of the night, this slightly odd creature, this sociopathic, slightly autistic, slightly anarchic, maverick, odd anti-hero.”

See what I mean about articulate? Part two: Benedict Cumberbatch on his life-changing experience with the Buddhist monks of Nepal… Click here to read it. Part three: How spirituality helps his acting, click here. Fourth and final part: Spielberg vs Madonna, click here.