Veteran of the BBC’s flagship film show, Wittertainment, Mark Kermode is a critic who needs little introduction, from his bequiffed head and large hands to even larger opinions and even more pointed rants. Here, he presents a guide to cinema one genre at a time, and it’s testament to both him and cinema that even if you’ve been listening to Kermode on BBC 5 Live for years, the result is still full of surprising insights and illuminating nuggets.
The series kicks off with the romantic comedy. From When Harry Met Sally to The Shape of Water, Kermode’s detailed commentary is only rivalled by his enthusiasm, not only drawing the influences on Guillermo del Toro’s fishy fling through back to classic fantasy and horror, but also engaging happily with Richard Curtis’ modern version of the genre – by way of the effervescent writing of Nora Ephron. And yes, there’s even a reference to Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.
It’s joined by science fiction and horror, as well as the coming-of-age movie and heist flick, each one picked apart without the dissection becoming too dry. What’s particularly impressive is that it’s not just about rattling off a list of narrative and thematic tropes, although there are those too (did you ever notice that almost all horror movies start with a journey?). And so we get observations about techniques and tricks, such as sci-fi’s habit of using news reporting and product placement to make extra-terrestrials credible, silent-era acting techniques to make robots seem more human, and movies such as Rififi use sound and music (or lack thereof) to drive up tension in some of their most iconic set pieces.
Structure, stereotypes and their subtle subversions are all scrutinised in turn, even finding parallels in the more general bracket of Oscar-winning films. Chief writer Kim Newman deserves credit for his research that fuels every new documentary essay, while Kermode’s delivery is impassioned yet concise. It’s all stitched together with some beautiful animations that portray everything from film names to timestamps and script breakdowns, and – what you want most of all from a show of this type – the movie clips themselves are neatly linked to provide an enjoyable highlights reel of familiar cinema moments over each pacy bout of 60 minutes. The result is film criticism as it should be: accessible, informative and entertaining. No wonder the BBC extended their run on BBC iPlayer for another year after their initial broadcast. This is a resource to be savoured and shared.
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema is available on BBC iPlayer until January 2020.