Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Philip French's Watchmen review - a stylistic tour de force

Whose opinion do you trust and refer to when booking tickets for a weekend screening? A quick list for me is: Derek Malcolm in the Standard, Mark Kermode on BBC Radio 5 Live (Fridays), Anthony Quinn in The Independent and the often anonymous but carefully considered vignettes in The Radio Times online and The London Paper. I'll read Peter Bradshaw in the Friday Guardian as well.

The Rolls Royce of critical literature on a film's release though is Philip French in The Observer. There's never a star rating or mark out of ten. Invariably there's not really much of an opinion. However, French trusts to his own writing to get across his estimation of the film's worth - in the meantime he's more focused on giving the film sufficient context for it to be seen in its best light. This is criticism for the benefit of both potential audience and filmmaker... and this Sunday's piece on Watchmen was a classic.

Did I know that Watchmen was a reference to Juvenal? No. Does it matter? Very much, as it tells us about the cultural background to not only the production team of the film but also of the source material. It also reminds us that either the film isn't simply put together by dilletantes with the genre-$ in mind or, importantly, that even if it is, this piece of writing appraises the film by a different set of standards.

Was I aware that Watchmen is related to Christopher Nolan's recent Batman series? Well, sure, you can see the Batman series in the temperament of the latter film... no, no, Nolan's masterstroke in his concept for Batman was in the tradition that Alan Moore brought to bear in mixing noir and Greek mythology (and the whole antiquity thing is not just presumptive but proven by the Juvenal aside - told you it matters). Suddenly one sees that Watchmen is a rather more brittle adaptation than one might like to admit, without French having said as much.

Best of all, French's prose is a joy to read. It's manicured. You'd be prepared to read it even if it was preparing you for the disappointment or delight inherent in a washing powder advert. It's also witty - but never self-servingly so. Again, a case in point:
[Watchmen's] eccentric 55-year-old author Alan Moore has become the most exotic thing to happen to his native Northampton since Errol Flynn spent a season with the Northampton Repertory Company 76 years ago.
Pauline Kael may have been more succinct. Anthony Lane is the supreme stylist, a Tom Wolfe of modern cinema. Kim Newman has the cult (Empire) following. But Philip French is the best.

Of course, Framescourer had completely forgotten about this post when he wrote the above...

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