Artillery Row

What does the Carey Mulligan controversy tell us about film criticism today?

How one misinterpreted film review may have set a dangerous precedent

The film Promising Young Woman, the feature directorial debut of the actress and writer Emerald Fennell, should be one of the cinematic highlights of 2021. Carefully timed to coincide with the developments of the #MeToo movement, it concerns the revenge wreaked by a young woman on the male sex after her best friend is raped. It has attracted rave reviews, not least for its star Carey Mulligan, and is hotly tipped to be a star attraction at the Oscars and BAFTAs. Unfortunately, it has now garnered attention for an entirely unfortunate reason, and an ironic one given the themes of the film: is its lead attractive enough?

Rather than accept his cancellation and fade into the background, an angry critic has spoken out

It is a bizarre question one might have thought, but it was first raised, however obliquely, in a positive review from Variety critic Dennis Harvey a year ago, when the film was first screened. Harvey wrote of Mulligan’s casting that, “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale — Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her.” He then went on to comment that she “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on”, and that her “flat American accent” is “a bit meta”, even as he concluded that, “this turn is skilful, entertaining and challenging, even when the eccentric method obscures the precise message.”

If one was Mulligan, one can imagine being both flattered and slightly perplexed by the comments in Harvey’s review. However, she made no public comment until late last year when, interviewed for a series of actor profiles for Variety, and then it became obvious that she had taken the criticism to heart. She said: “It’s important that we are looking at the right things when it comes to work, and we’re looking at the art and we’re looking at the performance. And I don’t think that goes to the appearance of the actor or your personal preference for what an actor does or doesn’t look like – which it felt that that article did.”

Although she, by now a veteran of the profession, claimed that she did not feel personally offended – “I think in criticising or bemoaning a lack of attractiveness on my part in a character, it wasn’t a personal slight … it didn’t wound my ego” – Mulligan suggested that her concern came from the precedent that it apparently set, saying, “in such a big publication an actress’s appearance could be criticised and it could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism.”

She expressed herself more succinctly to The New York Times: “I read the Variety review because I’m a weak person. And I took issue with it. It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse,” and concluded, “It drove me so crazy … I was like, ‘Really? For this film, you’re going to write something that is so transparent? Now? In 2020?’ I just couldn’t believe it.”

Variety might have prevented this trouble if they had commissioned one of their female writers to review Mulligan’s film

Variety was therefore faced with a dilemma. Should they stand by their critic and therefore run the risk of being accused not only of sexism, but the enabling of misogynistic remarks in public? Or should they wash their hands of a writer who was writing regularly for the title up until three weeks ago, issue a public apology and hope to move on from the argument? They chose the latter course, and appended a grovelling disclaimer to Harvey’s review: “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of Promising Young Woman that minimized her daring performance.” They have made no public comment on Harvey’s future with them, but it seems unlikely, given the embarrassment that he has apparently caused the title, that his byline will be appearing there again.

However, rather than accept his cancellation and fade into the background, an angry Harvey has spoken out. He commented to The Guardian – hardly a title that routinely lends support to misogynists – that, “I did not say or even mean to imply Mulligan is ‘not hot enough’ for the role. I’m a 60-year-old gay man. I don’t actually go around dwelling on the comparative hotnesses of young actresses, let alone writing about that.” Stating that he was “appalled to be tarred as misogynist, which is something very alien to my personal beliefs or politics,” and that “this whole thing could not be more horrifying to me than if someone had claimed I was a gung-ho Trump supporter.” He then refused to apologise for the review:

I assumed that film-makers who created such a complex, layered movie wouldn’t interpret what I wrote as some kind of simpleminded sexism. And while Carey Mulligan is certainly entitled to interpret the review however she likes, her projection of it suggesting she’s ‘not hot enough’ is, to me, just bizarre. I’m sorry she feels that way. But I’m also sorry that’s a conclusion she would jump to, because it’s quite a leap.

The battle lines were drawn. On the one hand, film critics such as The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin have leapt to Harvey’s defence, saying that Variety’s statement has set “a truly idiotic precedent” that not only curbs critics’ freedom of speech, but allows powerful talent agencies (such as Mulligan’s representatives, CAA) “free rein to comb through their coverage for lines to use as leverage which could be construed, however disingenuously, as cancellation-worthy offences.”

On the other, there have been many others accusing him of misogyny and gaslighting, such as Vivian Kane writing that, “critic Dennis Harvey chose to display a total misunderstanding not just of the film, but of sexual assault in general” and calling his writing “glaringly sexist”. In The Guardian itself, the film critic Peter Bradshaw, while damning Variety’s response as “very feeble” and broadly agreeing with Harvey’s review, acknowledged that, “There are legions of women commenting on social media today to say that … what they want is a broader and more diverse range of critical opinions and more women’s voices coming through.”

This entire issue will be used by powerful publicists to attempt to muzzle critics

Film criticism is no longer as white and male-dominated as it once was. Leading writers such as The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, Time’s Stephanie Zacharek and The Observer’s Wendy Ide and Simran Hans have all brought a useful and fresh perspective to their titles, just as the editor of Empire magazine, Terri White, has ensured that the title’s coverage is considerably more attuned to issues of diversity and representation than it ever has been before. However, anyone attending a screening in Soho for the weekly press shows would note that most of the critics there remain men, and review films with the unconscious prejudices and bias of their sex. Certainly, it may have saved Variety a great deal of trouble if they had commissioned one of their female writers to review Promising Young Woman. Yet this does not mean that they would have come to a different conclusion to Harvey, simply that they would have had a right to comment on issues of Mulligan’s appearance and apparent suitability for the role in a way that their male counterparts would not.

Journalists commenting, often acidly, on issues of actors’ physical appearance has been a perennial and understandable source of frustration to them. Diana Rigg even compiled a book of bad reviews, No Turn Unstoned, that was inspired by one sniggering writer saying of a nude scene of hers that, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses”. Once, critics regarded themselves as able to make such insulting remarks with impunity, whether it was someone criticising David Warner as “moose-faced”, or saying that Una Stubbs looked like a chicken.

On other occasions, there was a more prurient element to their criticism. It is impossible to forget The Telegraph’s former theatre critic Charles Spencer describing Nicole Kidman’s nude scene in the play The Blue Room as “pure theatrical Viagra”, or the unfortunate Kidman being subjected to what amounted to a book-length exercise in lust by the respected film historian David Thomson. In it, he praised her “boyish hips”, her “gingery pubic hair”, her “very pretty bare bottom”, and describes his “respect for her thighs”, as well as saying that her “elegant Australian body … has sometimes shone like a lighthouse in sex scenes.” It continues in this vein for hundreds of pages, including descriptions of Thomson’s own fantasies of Kidman. It is a deeply regrettable book.

There is something profoundly distasteful about reading a review or a biography that reads as if its salivating author has composed it with one hand. (It is faintly extraordinary that Thomson continues to have a career, but presumably nobody has read his 2006 publication, which is, perhaps thankfully, long since out of print.) Yet there is a world of difference between personal abuse, or prurient appreciation, and a carefully considered appraisal of an actors’ talents and abilities which must, on occasion, take note of their physical appearance, among other factors.

There are conversations to be had about the representation of diverse voices in film criticism

It is possible that the ambiguities in Harvey’s review could have been more clearly expressed, but nonetheless it is hard to conclude that he has deserved the opprobrium that has been heaped upon him. There are conversations to be had about the representation of diverse and unheard voices in film criticism – which must encompass gay middle-aged white men as well as young women of colour – but I share Collin and Bradshaw’s fear that this entire issue will be cynically used by powerful publicists to attempt to muzzle critics and titles that have been insufficiently appreciative of their clients.

Armed with the ability to marshal fans who will drive online abuse towards transgressors, one worries that impartial criticism may be threatened altogether and that we will end up with both a ruined industry and servile client journalism about its remaining practitioners. In which case, it will die out altogether within a decade or so. If the future is a mixture of facile, empty “product” and frightened, fawning yes-men covering it, I, for one, will not mourn its passing.

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