Brendan O'Carroll and the cast of Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie.
Show Hide image

Why wasn’t “Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie” shown to critics ahead of its release?

The trend for distributors to refuse advanced previews for critics speaks volumes about their attitude to the press - but it’s a risky strategy, and doesn’t always mean the film is a dud.

It’s a shame that the distributor of Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie has decreed that the film should not be available to be reviewed in advance by the press. Admittedly some critics may regard this decision as less of a pity and more like a lucky escape. If you want to get some idea of why they feel this way, you don’t even to need to watch an episode of the BBC sitcom of which it is a spin-off. Just have a peek at the trailer. Though before you rush to judgement, do bear in mind that some terrific films have suffered from wretched trailers. The one promoting Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street famously didn’t even bother telling audiences that the movie was a musical containing almost no spoken dialogue whatsoever. So it’s perfectly plausible that whoever cut together the trailer for Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie neglected to include any of the moments that might be amusing. Or, for that matter, any excerpts which don’t resemble the comedic equivalent of nails dragging along a blackboard so intensely for the rest of time that the arrival of Armageddon would be greeted like a tall, cold drink at the end of a Saharan slog.

There are a number of reasons why I’m sorry that the film has been deemed too fragile for critical eyes, and none of them has to do with having strong feelings for or against the original sitcom. I can appreciate easily its end-of-the-pier, music-hall appeal, even if I am not one of those who has fallen for its raggedy charms. I can see that its creator and cross-dressing star, Brendan O’Carroll, is a canny entertainer who knows his audience. And I’ve met some intelligent people who adore it, such as the actor-writer-director Kathy Burke, who told me recently that she is a fan of the show. “I really love what Brendan has done,” she said. “Sometimes in our business we think we’re here to entertain each other and we forget there’s an audience at home. They’re the most important ones—not pleasing the Bafta panel that year.”

The problem with hiding movies from critics and reviewers is that it patronises everyone on the film food chain, including the audience and even the filmmakers themselves. Writers whose job it is to interpret and reflect upon work of every conceivable genre, standard, language and cultural and geographical origin are effectively deemed to be of insufficient imagination to tell whether a comedy succeeds in being funny, or whether it is likely to tickle its target audience. A review can be personal but it can’t be biased. It would be a dereliction of duty if, say, a musical or a western were dismissed simply because a critic was averse to that genre. For that reason the job of the critic (distinct from that of the blogger) is to have an immediate and sympathetic familiarity with a vast range of cinema, distinct from personal preference.  That’s a rambling way of saying that I’ve been obscurely slighted by not being trusted to see Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie.

But let’s face it: the reason critics were given the heave-ho in this instance was because the chances were that they would put the boot in. Some films would have a hard time enduring in the marketplace without a critical boost (such as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which is being released on 11 July by Universal, the same distributor behind Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie). Others, such as summer blockbusters, demand saturation coverage, and reviews are still part of that, even if they may not persuade or dissuade the majority of potential viewers. A recent trend is to preview big films too late for advance word to build, be it positive or negative. Last month’s Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow was screened in that way, which was a surprise since it transpired to be rather good. A mark of how low the stock of critics has fallen in the eyes of some studios and distributors, and how highly social media is valued, can be found in the tactic of mixing Twitter comments in among professional plaudits and star ratings when there aren’t enough positive critical quotes to fill the blank spaces on a film poster. Most suspect was the case of Midnight’s Children, which featured a prominent approving quote from Salman Rushdie, who happened to have written not only the novel on which that picture was based but its screenplay also.

To make a movie completely unavailable to critics, though, is to risk attaching to it pre-emptively the stink of disaster. The first time I encountered that was when the 1997 film version of The Avengers, starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, was hidden from critics’ eyes. (We had to review it by dashing along on opening day and filing our reviews in a panic.) The most recent was The Harry Hill Movie. While both were lacking, neither was a turkey. With Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, as with those titles, the decision has been taken that it is better to rush the film out so that it might have a shot at a decent opening weekend without the potential deterrent of bad reviews. Everyone loses. The filmmakers get to feel that no one has faith in their movie, professional critics and reviewers are snubbed, and audiences can rest assured that their feeble sensibilities have been lovingly protected from the beastly horrid press—by the same people keen to grab their £12 admission price before word gets out that they’ve (possibly) been sold a pup.

Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie is released tomorrow.

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

Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser