Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Four: movie review

Four is a British film, described as a "psychological thriller" which came out a year or so ago. Reading a snippet about the plot, which seemed interesting (a rich man hires someone to teach a lesson to his wife's lover) I was encouraged to watch it. Unfortuntely, it took only the first few lines of dialogue for me to start worrying about the script, and from an unpromising beginning, things went from bad to worse. There are four characters, none of them appealing or credible, and the acting, though on a slightly higher level than the plotting, characterisation and dialogue, was never going to trouble the Academy Award judges. It is a short film, less than 90 minutes in all, but it felt much, much longer. 

I thought I ought to check out what other reviewers have made of this film. The Guardian said it "isnt' terrible, just confusing and boring", while Britflicks said it was "atrocious", The Times and The Sunday Times were both scathing about the dialogue. I'm sure there must be kinder reviews of the film out there somewhere, but these reactions were enough to convince me that I hadn't missed too many subtleties.

And yet. There is something that troubles me a lot about publishing a negative review. I think that, when one admires or simply enjoys a book, a play, a film or anything else, it's entirely reasonable to point out any aspects of that don't work quite as well as others. Relentlessly piling on admiring superlatives can be unsatisfactory and pointless. Balance is surely a Good Thing. But there's a potential for unkindess about castigating a work of art that one or more people have worked hard on that should surely give one pause for thought, especially in the case of a low budget film like this. Returning to yesteday's topic, if J.K. Rowling is criticised by reviewers- however unfairly - she has at least the consolation that she is one of the great best-sellers of all time, someone who will be remembered long after most of us are forgotten. I definitely have some sympathy for those who (like me) are far, far, below that level of success. Bad as I thought this film was, in the end, I only decided to publish this review because I'm interested to seek people's opinions on severely negative reviews, and whether they can ever be justified. (I'm talking about reviews where, as here, the reviewer has no personal axe to grind, not the cases much in the news recently where negative reviews have been published, sometimes anonymously, primarily to denigrate fellow writers - I can see no excuse for that practice at all.)

Anyway, this blog is not meant to have a negative slant. It's a means of sharing my pleasure in the crime genre. So as a penance, tomorrow I will write a rave review of an excellent book I've just finished and which I loved from page one to the end!


Maxine Clarke said...

I think negative reviews of books, films, etc can be very useful. There is no need for them to be rude or insulting (a mistake made by some bloggers!) but if the review is reasoned, it is useful for the reader of it, who may decide not to read the book or see the film as a result. There are various websites and blogs(eg in crime fiction) where all the reviews are unreservedly positive. I simply don't read, let alone trust, them -- any of them! I much prefer a blog or site where I know I'll get some honest, well-argued opinion, then I can make up my own mind.

Sarah said...

It's an interesting question. I don't publish overly negative reviews on my blog as if I hate a book that much I tend to stop reading it and it's not fair to review a book I've not finished.

But very few books are perfect and often the better the book the more you have to say about any small failings. I've just re-read my review of the Mons Kallentoft's first book, Midwinter Sacrifice' and I would have sworn that I gave it a rave review as I am now reading book 3 and enjoying it very much. But my review in fact was ambivalent about some aspects and yet I remember enjoying the book in retrospect.

You haven't mentioned as a writer how you feel when you get negative reviews. No-one has ever taken issue with what I've written in a review I don't think but I know anything negative can be hurtful. I suspect tone is important.I think it's important to be honest, because although I get a fair amount of review copies I also buy a lot of books and if I am being duped into spending my hard earned cash that I am reading the next Jo Nesbo, Steig Larsson or whoever it's only fair to say so.

Bernadette said...

While I don't think anyone should be slamming things for the sake of it I do think there's a place for negative reviewing/opinion. As a reader the most books I have ever read in one year is around 160, in most years (like this one) the number is lucky to be half that. So when I read reviews by people whose opinions I have grown to trust I am looking both for recommendations of things that would be worth my time AND for a way to filter out things that are not. I generally don't make my decision not to read something based on one negative review but if several reviewers whose opinions I trust all say the same thing then I will use that as a filtering mechanism.

As for whether or not that is fair to those authors whose books I don't try I don't really know but there are thousands more authors whose books won't even make it to my radar (for any number of reasons) and we get back to the fact that I can only read a set number of books per year. I can say that nothing makes me more annoyed than having read a book which I have only ever seen glowing reviews of and when I have dared to suggest the book is not good by publishing a negative review of my own I get emails and private messages from people saying they agree. Thanks for nothing is what I want to respond to these people - you've contributed to me wasting my valuable reading time and also to me probably putting the author in question on some sort of personal blacklist never to be tried again because I've gotten really angry at the time wasting and my perception that people are not being honest about this author's work (which is really not the author's fault but there you go).

As long as the opinion is an honest one and is not a personal attack against the author but offers some genuine reasons why the reviewer did not like the work a negative review is perfectly valid and much appreciated by readers (if not authors).

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, that's a characteristically measured and reasonable perspective. Many thanks.

Martin Edwards said...

Sarah, that's an excellent point about small failings of very good books.
I agree about tone, too.
I will not pretend that I like negative reviews of my own books, but possibly because I'm not famous, so far I have not had many. Two bad ones were for my first two books, and one of those was, I'm sure, unreasonable. The other was a legitimate opinion. Since then, the worst review I've had was from a formerly published crime novelist whom I've never met but who has given various contemporary books very bad reviews. His motivation is unknown.
When it comes to balanced and constructive criticism, there is much for a writer to learn. I pay a great deal of attention to contstructive comments from people who are perhaps favourably disposed to my writing, but who identify things that could be done better.

Martin Edwards said...

Bernadette, that's a very well reasoned piece, and I think that most writers would agree that your points are well made. Thank you.