Johnny Depp characterising critics as all-powerful movie slayers is pure delusion

With newspapers laying off arts writers, the suggestion The Lone Ranger has been ruined by dishonest reviewers seems paradoxical. Perhaps there are other reasons behind the blockbuster's US flop?

Actors Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and producer Jerry Bruckheimer complained publicly this week that a slew of poor (and, they allege, dishonest) reviews killed their new movie The Lone Ranger on its US release in July. As many commentators were quick to point out on Twitter, this is poppycock. “I blame the studio that couldn’t help the filmmakers locate the fun, less-convoluted 100-minute film that's struggling to get out,” said Charles Gant, film editor of Heat magazine and the Guardian’s box-office analyst. Jonathan Dean of the Sunday Times observed correctly: “It’s one of [Depp’s] poorer arguments. Critics hated the last THREE Pirates movies and they did so well they’re making another.”

I enjoyed parts of The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski (who made the first three Pirates of the Caribbean instalments), but it’s not a massively audience-friendly film. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, with an uncertain tone that veers wildly between slapstick, action-adventure and the outright macabre, it is less like a summer tentpole release than a vaudeville show or a student revue (albeit one on a budget so large that Disney had to step in to halt production and prune the costs). It is absolutely the filmmakers’ right to make the movie they wanted to make, and if the studio is willing to trust them on their judgements, however eccentric, then they are luckier than most in the current straitened climate.

But to then whinge at critics because that big-budget gamble didn’t pay off is somewhat undignified. Hammer even suggested that US critics only came after The Lone Ranger because their attempts to savage another beleaguered production—World War Z, which also suffered off-screen setbacks—were frustrated when that movie went on to become a moderate hit. “This is the deal with American critics: they’ve been gunning for our movie since it was shut down the first time,” the actor said. “That’s when most of the critics wrote their initial reviews… They tried to do the same thing with World War Z. It didn’t work, the movie was successful. Instead they decided to slit the jugular of our movie.”

This idea of critics as serial killers prowling the multiplexes with the smell of blood in their nostrils is simultaneously quaintly amusing and entirely whacko. It bears no relation to reality. A tiny release playing on a handful of screens can be buried by a bad review from an influential writer, or lifted out of obscurity for a few days by a positive one. But a blockbuster rarely dies unless there are extenuating circumstances: if the audience wasn’t put off by the pre-release whiff of perceived trouble on The Lone Ranger, perhaps the picture fell foul of the curse of the western, an especially difficult genre to market to modern audiences. So far the film has taken $175m on a $215m budget—bad news indeed. It’s too early to say what its total gross will be but from the outside it resembles the Will Smith flop Wild Wild West all over again (old TV show adaptation lacking any modern-day currency of familiarity; major box-office star; western theme). That took $222m on a $170m budget, another poor result.

Contrary to what Depp and his compadres believe, the critical fraternity is in a more vulnerable position than ever. In the past few years, the Village Voice disgraced itself by sacking some of the finest film writers in the US—including J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim—while here in the UK the latest cull was at the Independent on Sunday, which has exhibited the grossest philistinism in cutting loose its entire team of arts critics from September. I haven’t read the Village Voice since Hoberman was pushed, and I can’t think of a reason to buy a national newspaper like the IoS when it places such paltry value on brilliant and informed critical writing. But the situation is hardly helped by wealthy and powerful Hollywood titans suggesting that any bad reviews must be motivated by spite, collusion or conspiracy. The same critics, presumably, who gave rave reviews to earlier Verbinski comedies like the hugely inventive Mousehunt and Rango, or who praised Depp’s idiosyncratic turns in the Pirates movies. Or were those different, cuddlier critics?

The Lone Ranger is released on Friday.

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in The Lone Ranger.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Getty
Show Hide image

Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism