There’s a popular critique — which is to say I read this once and it stuck in my mind; can’t remember where it was, though — of New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane that says that, although he’s a wonderful writer, there’s something unserious about him. He never seems to care enough about the film’s he critiquing, either in his praise or in his condemnation.
In one sense, this is a stupid critique. We have too many people who take their opinions too seriously. We have too few people who write as well, in the bemused-ironic register, as Anthony Lane. The proper response to his writing, most of the time, is "You go, girl!" Or, as Rachel Cooke writes in this excellent review of a collection of Lane’s essays published a few years ago:
Lane has built up a reputation for being the best critic in the business, his wit, verve and (mostly) excellent good taste an effervescent tonic – a kind of Lucozade for the grey matter – imbibed by all who despair at the tinny void of popular culture.
His prose – agile yet muscular, seriously funny – floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. He arches an eyebrow, marshals one of his oh-so-neat verbal left hooks and – ooph! – before you know it, muddle-headed thinkers everywhere are well and truly on the ropes.
…If you have never read a Lane review before, then you are in for a treat. If you have, well, lucky you: they sure survive re-reading. I would rather dine on woodlice than see Pearl Harbor again, but I have ingested Lane’s verdict on it no less than three times, and his opening paragraph always results in hot tea shooting uncomfortably, deliriously, down my nose: ‘The last Michael Bay film, Armageddon, was a handy guide to what you should do when an asteroid bumps into your planet,’ he writes. ‘His new picture, Pearl Harbor, maintains the mood, pulsing with fervour as it tells a tale familiar to every child in America: how a great nation was attacked and humbled by the imperious pride of Ben Affleck.’
That said (you knew there was a ‘that said’ on the horizon, didn’t you), there’s something about us humans that depends on passion and conviction for a certain kind of sustenance. Too much bemusement in one sitting and we start to get cranky. So in that sense it would be nice to get a bit of blood-churning from Lane, which is why I draw your attention to this week’s review of the new film by Stephen Frears, the British director who you may remember from such faves as "High Fidelity." It’s called "The Queen," and it’s about the first year or so of the relationship between newly elected prime minister Tony Blair and the right honorable Queen Elizabeth II, duly elected monarch of the city-state of London.
Lane likes the movie, but it’s in his discussion of the post-Diana-death reaction of the British public, and the widespread perception that the royal family didn’t grieve properly, which is to say publicly and melodramatically, that Lane gets damn near passionate:
How does one satirize a population? What I sensed, in the passing of Diana, was the rise of an alternative, hybrid deity. Call her Dianysus: the sacrificed goddess of love“Queen of people’s hearts,” as she herself wished to be remembered, or “the people’s Princess,” as the Prime Minister tagged her, his spontaneous blessing nicely scripted, the movie suggests, by Campbell was worshipped by an unreasoning throng that fed on its own distress. On the first evening after Diana’s death, and again in subsequent days, I went down to Buckingham Palace, like an undercover Christopher Robin, and talked to the snaking lines of mourners. On TV, a well-known historian had suggested that, while Diana’s plight and style had left a vivid symbolic imprint on British society, she herself had not been an especially gifted being. I found a pair of respectable middle-aged Englishwomen standing tearily in the Mall and asked if they had heard the historian’s words. “Yes,” one of them replied, “and if he shows his face down here I’ll rip his fucking head off.” Here was the new atavismor, at any rate, the old earthen British fury, spreading into parts of the body politic that it had not previously touched. As in many a mob, the swell of shared emotion lay on the knife-edge of violence. No wonder the Queen stayed away.a
One clue to the cause of Lane’s distress, and an implicit cause of his usual complacency, is that he’s British, and it’s not clear that he really cares about the American polity, the cultural context in which most of the movies he reviews exist, in the way that he does the British one. This point, I believe, has been suggested before as well, but it was impossible to verify it in the negative. Now that we see how Lane reacts to a British movie, it seems a plausible interpretation of him.