How to write a film review: Notes for beginners

When you set out to write a film review, it is worth considering why someone would want to read it. There are two reasons. The first is that they want to decide whether or not they should go and see the film. The second is that they have seen the film and want to assess or make sense of, their response to it. Unfortunately, as a reviewer you have no idea which particular group your reader is going to fall into, so you need to write for both.

The first thing to do is to give some overview of what your review is going to say. So a statement like: “I really liked this film with its long intricate examination of the slow destruction of a closely knit family” or “This is a Western and people who like John Wayne films will love this”.

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers


Statements like these give the reader an excellent idea of whether they should continue reading review and what to expect from.

Probably the most important element of the film for most people is the storyline, so it’s useful to make some comment on the story. Usually, films are simply stories, great stories, but stories nonetheless. Wonderful examples of this are the Star Wars films, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Indiana Jones series, the Terminator series and Die Hard.

Die  Hard, The Last Crusade, Star Wars, Terminator and Lord of the Rings

Die Hard, The Last Crusade, Star Wars, Terminator and Lord of the Rings

It is important to comment on the nature of the narrative structure. In doing this, it is often helpful to tease out the relationship between the characters and the story. Usually, we find stories more interesting than characters and most films reflect this. In these films, the action drives the film, it’s what happens that is important to us. The James Bond franchise presents excellent examples of this type of film.

Star Wars for instance is predominantly a story where the characters only exist to progress story. Hans Solo and Princess Leia are wonderful characters but they are subservient to the plot. Much the same could be said for the Lord of the Rings where the characters are essentially plot devices. The characters are deftly established early in the film and they change very little from then on. Frodo and Sam don’t even get thin during the privations of their journey to Mordor. Sometimes, the characterisation and a film is more important than the plot, often not intentionally.

For instance, I thought that Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Jasmine in Blue Jasmine was brilliant, particularly because the character is one for whom we have almost no sympathy. However, I thought that the story and Woody Allen’s direction was trite and uninteresting. If you take a similar perspective in a review then it would be useful to describe the technical aspects of Blanchett’s acting and why the storyline is less than satisfying.

Cate Blanchett's Jasmine hits the blooze

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine hits the blooze


Sometimes a film will include characters who change and develop in the course of the film. It is worth commenting on this because if the film contains characters who grow (or shrink) during the post the film in this adds an extra mention to the simple idea of a plot-driven film. In a play like King Lear, of which there are 11 film versions, the emphasis is on the central character and Lear’s tragic disintegration and ultimate redemption is at the centre of the play.

When commenting on characters in the film, it is important to make an important distinction. The first way that we may see a character is in their relationship to the narrative and the extent to which the character has developed within that narrative. But there is a subtler aspect of characterisation that the film critic can comment on: the extent to which the actor/actress shapes and develops the character. Sometimes a standout acting performance is more a result of the well-written script rather than great acting. For instance, it is worth considering the extent to which Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar award-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love is result of great acting or great because of the script written by Tom Stoppard. If we compare this with Tom Hanks’ performance, also an Academy award winner,in Forrest Gump. we see an active or is not been gifted a brilliant script but who nonetheless creates one of the great and memorable screen characters.

Gwyneth Paltrow as the brilliantly scripted Violet and Tom Hanks as the brilliantly acted Forrest Gump.

Gwyneth Paltrow as the brilliantly scripted Violet and Tom Hanks as the brilliantly acted Forrest Gump.

So the critic can view the character had three levels: the first is as part of the story, the second is as part of their development as a result of being part of that story and the third is the extent to which the actor/actress’s invests something extra in character that is above what is contained in the storyline or script.

It is also very useful to comment on the structure of the film. The most important element of the structure of the film is, of course the plot, but there are other ways that structure can be used by a director.

The way in which the director has put the film together is an important component of the meaning and impact of film. There are a number of ways that a director can structure a film. The most important criterion in considering these structural elements is whether they make the film a more coherent and satisfying experience for the viewer.

In its most simple form, a film goes from beginning to end in a chronological sequence but this can be varied with flash backs and flash forwards. There are numerous possibilities, one of which is beginning at the end.

In Inside Llewyn Davis, the film begins and ends with the same scene. It is important to remember is that every scene in a film has been consciously placed in position by the director, and that the Coen brothers are very conscious film directors. So it is useful, in this case, to comment on how this particular element of structure has affected your view of the film. My personal view is that this is a circular structure, and that the main character, despite the experiences of the film, has finished up in the same place as he began rather like Groundhog Day.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis and Ulysses the cat. Joel Coen explained: “The film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.”

Oscar Isaac as
Llewyn Davis and Ulysses the cat. Joel Coen explained: “The film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.”

Many films have used this technique showing the final scene first: Fight Club, Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard to name just a few. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starts at the end and has two characters moving in opposite chronological directions. This is a wonderful example of the relationship between structure and meaning in a film. It is also one that divided the critics.

Films that start at the end: Sunset Boulevard (Gloria Swanson and William Holden) Lawrence of Arabia  (TE Lawrence on his motorbike),  Citizen Kane  (also Wells), Fight Club  (Brad Pitt), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button  (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett)

Films that start at the end: Sunset Boulevard (Gloria Swanson and William Holden) Lawrence of Arabia (TE Lawrence on his motorbike), Citizen Kane (also Wells), Fight Club (Brad Pitt), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett)

21 Grams, directed by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts is a wonderful example of parallel narratives in the film. This film is essentially three stories that are increasingly woven together to provide a complex and deeply satisfying film.

Sean Penn in 21  Grams

Sean Penn in 21 Grams

By contrast, the film adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel The Turning consists of 17 separate short films linked together thematically and in eight of them through a main character and his wife. Unfortunately, the characters are played by different actors in each one of these short films, making it extremely difficult to extract any cohesive sense of meaning from the film.

As a final element of a film review, the critic may wish to consider whether they are able to place the film in a broader context. Most films fit into some category or genre: thriller, western, musical comedy, horror. If a critic is able to place a film in a genre, is in easier for the reader to make comparisons and to see the film in some context. Gladiator is an epic film in the old-style and should be seen in the context of films such as Ben Hur, Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Alexander and The Robe.

The advantage of being able to place a film in a genre is that each genre has a set of conventions, although some may some may call them clichés. Horror movies for instance require innocents wandering into the lair of evil, lots of blood, lots of suspense, evil, diabolically murderous central character etc. Just as the Enid Blyton books were tremendously popular with children in the 1950s and 60s, so to genre films are extremely popular and the critic can usefully benchmark in the genre film against the better-known examples.

Some films may also fit into some of the archetypal story lines. The rags to riches stories go back to stories such as Dick Whittington and his Cat and Cinderella and in films like Jobs, Slum Dog Millionaire and Evita all of which are based on real-life characters. And then there is The Quest (Lord of the Rings) and its near relative The Journey (from which all the road movies spring), Overcoming the Monster (think Alien and also the film adaptation of the early Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf), Voyage and Return (all the adaptations of CS Lewis)

Then there’s the vast range of superheroes: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Captain America and Howard the Duck who go back to the heroes of ancient mythology: Achilles, Hercules, Ulysses, Jason, Thor, King Arthur, Peter Pan and Robin Hood as well as a range of wicked stepmothers, ugly sisters, fairy godmothers and Prince Charmings.

Films that are based around these archetypal characters characters are often more than simply genre films. What they have in common is that they have their roots in mythology and fairy tales that, arguably, tap into some deeper part of our collective unconsciousness. I would also argue that Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films fall into this category. I believe that the popularity of these films is that Harry Callahan is a character who taps into a deep vein of our subconscious where lurk our desires to do violence against those who threaten us.

So in summary, a good film review says whether or not you like the film and why. It comments on the story and the extent to which the characters are merely part of the story will have a life of their own. It also comments on the extent to which the actor/actress has worked with the material that is inherent in the script. A good film review looks at the storyline as part of the structure and the extent to which the director has used the structure to enhance the cinematic worth of the film. And finally, a good review places the film within a genre (if it fits within one) also place in the context of some broader archetypes of narrative and fairy tale.

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