End credits for Philip French

French, the Observer’s main film critic since 1978, will retire in August. Douglas McCabe assesses the work of a critic who was determined to see every film in its social, historical, cultural and aesthetic context.

Philip French, the Observer’s main film critic since 1978, will retire in August following his 80th birthday. For the past few years, it has looked as if the Observer, a newspaper founded in 1791 and now suffering from a rapid decline, could be retired before French steps down.

Film criticism in newspapers today is not the discipline to which French elevated it when he began reviewing in the early 1960s (his first film review for the paper appeared in 1963). Despite his confidence in its future, I suspect that digital, mobile and social media collectively threaten to undermine the demand for professional cultural criticism more broadly.

French has been an integral part of the Observer experience for 35 years in a way no successor will be able to equal, because our lifestyles and expectations have changed enormously. When I was an adolescent, he was part of my Sunday ritual. I lived in a small town with an impecunious, uneducated family that had limited interest in culture; French informed me about films I was not able to see for months. He helped me define my interests; my sense of how history, cultural analysis and taste intermingled and of the range of values that determined a civilised life. It is impossible to imagine another Sunday newspaper columnist having such influence today.

Most newspapers and magazines have not markedly reduced their space for film reviews in the past few decades (it is inexpensive and relatively popular copy) but they have frequently handed film criticism to populist journalists who have a limited historic perspective on the medium. There are exceptions. In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes beautiful prose, full of metaphor, his light-of-foot style arguably making the informed, knowledge-based approach of French seem verbose, plodding and a little worthy. Mark Cousins – the journalist, author, broadcaster and film-maker – communicates an indefinable film-art temperament with infectious enthusiasm and he has democratically decentralised cinema to an art form and industry alive and effective across all continents. This risks making French’s love of westerns, police procedurals and British dramas look conservative.

Yet such comparisons are misleading. French breathes cinema. Few cultural commentators trust the medium as he does (it saved him from a career in law). He embraces quality popular entertainment as much as the more demanding European cinema because he sees every film in its social, historical, cultural and aesthetic context.

A S Byatt has referred to him as “one of the monuments of our culture”. His short film reviews in the Observer’s television pages are deceptively simple mini-essays, overflowing with insights. The longer reviews contain an intelligence and analysis – of both a film’s wider context and its style – that few reviewers have the experience or cultural knowledge to match. Look again at his reviews of The Great Gatsby, Brokeback Mountain, Heat, or Vera Drake. French systematically articulates how to approach each work and how we experience it emotionally and intellectually.

Like everyone, critics have topics to which they return again and again. Over the decades, attentive readers of French have developed an intimate understanding of his obsessions. A comprehensive list could go on for pages but would certainly include: the writers Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges (many crime films manifest “Borgesian themes”); cowboy adventures (his book Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre is a leading work in a contested field); films set on trains; actors with great voices, notably Cary Grant and James Mason; the Gherkin in London; directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Ingmar Bergman, Christopher Nolan, Pedro Almodóvar and Louis Malle (his extended interview Malle on Malle is one of the finest books on a film director).

In 1994 I sent French a postcard outlining my films of the year and, in a brief reply highlighting my inclusion of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, he noted wryly, “Movie titles that start with numbers are often fine.” The implication was clear. French has long written about sequels (with the notable exception of the Godfather films), and the public obsession with the box office, as representing the worst traits of an industry that changed after Steven Spielberg reinvented the movie event.

He would never stoop to using a Shakespearean cliché such as: “We shall never see his like again.” But in this case, it is true – and it’s hardly French’s fault that he will be unable to inspire a sequel of the same stature.

Philip French's review of Vera Drake is worth revisiting.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror