Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Case for Rare Metal

No idea what the comment from espresso-cup was on about last post, but that's okay - the internet is like that.

Another journey to the mystical yet poorly laid out mini theatres at the Embassy took me to another Oscar worthy film (and indeed, it has already won a Golden Globe), The Iron Lady. Meryl Streep is always awesome to watch, and she eerily portrays Margaret Thatcher, the highly divisive former British Prime Minister.

The film itself has come in for some criticism for showing Lady Thatcher as she is "now", occasionally suffering from dementia. Having heard that there would be that element, I was not surprised when The Iron Lady started out in the "now", and indeed, I was quite liked that the films starts with Thatcher going out to buy milk in a very modern London, where she was the only white person in the store.

What I had not expected was how long the movie dwelt in the now. While there is no denying Streep's "old" performance is amazing, and Jim Broadbent has a bit of fun in his role as Dennis, I got a bit... perhaps not annoyed, but confused by why the film seemed to linger here when, as a biopic, I would have thought the bulk of the movie would have been concerned with Thatcher's controversial decade-long reign.

The Iron Lady is set around Thatcher coming to terms with her age, occasionally ruminating on "highlights" from her impressive career. From her humble beginnings as a grocer's daughter, we see how she meets her partner for life and has her children, we get an idea about her rise to office, and then Meryl takes over as Thatcher and we go through the "big events" in the life of Thatcher the politician: becoming Prime Minister, breaking the unions, IRA bombings, the Falklands War and of course, her ultimate demise.

Everything is shown with an amazing flair for the outfits, but it all feels a bit budget in a way; the sets are small and cramped, almost as if it was all shot inside a big manor, though perhaps the titanic performances just make everything else look small. As the story is told in flashback, we see things as Thatcher (supposedly) recalls them, but it does seem a bit disingenuous then to focus on what are the more obvious "big events" than making an emotional connection to events that might not have been so public (and relatively short), but which might have had more impact on her life. For example, there are several allusions to Thatcher sacrificing her family for her career, but there is scant time to reflect on these personal difficulties when Thatcher is contemplating going to war.

Similarly, the IRA bombings seem to be treated as uncontrollable events that destroy people or buildings prominent in Thatcher's life, and are basically ignored as an issue that can be addressed when Thatcher assumes power. For all the film portrays, the IRA could still be a potent terrorist force in the UK, though I suppose the Iron Lady is not really a film about the IRA.

After the Falklands War, things turn rosy for Thatcher (a short, successful war always seems to please the patriotic imperial public and make the war leaders more popular) and a montage takes care of her story from there until the afterglow of battle wears off and she is deposed. It seems a shame to gloss over the fall of Soviet-led communism (and the affairs of Europe in general) and the role of Thatcher, but again, perhaps those affairs weren't fast or public enough. And the extreme speed at which her fall from the leadership is charted doesn't really explain why the politics that worked so well in the past became toxic (was she really rolled because her personality became too abrasive more than her views became too unpalatable?), but then, as with most things in this film, the depth of the events is lost in the desire to show Thatcher in full, school-marmish flight.

Of course, Meryl Streep is and should be the centre of attention. Her Thatcher at the peak of her powers is incredible to behold, her older Thatcher still hypnotising but almost from a different film. As I said before, at times I was wondering if I was actually watching a film about dementia and old age rather than a biopic of the life and times of Margaret Thatcher. Films about ageing can be incredible (On Golden Pond is a Katharine Hepburn (suffering from Parkinson's, but still feisty and unstoppable) and Henry Fonda classic; and if you have not seen Away From Her with the luminous Julie Christie, it is worth the watch though I will admit that it is not the cheeriest of subject material), but I wasn't quite expecting a meditation on being elderly going into a film about Margaret Thatcher.

But overall, it is hard not to be impressed by the performances, especially Streep's of course, though the line up of British thesping talent lending their faces to members of parliament is equally noteworthy (Richard E Grant not hamming it up; John Sessions being boring; Anthony Head being an uncool nerd - these are not things one sees every day... unless one watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer I suppose, though Giles did have a past...). While the story might not quite be what I was expecting or perhaps hoping for, the people involved give amazing performances and definitely make The Iron Lady worth seeing.

Verdict: The Iron Lady will probably earn Streep another Oscar in her incredible portrayal of the United Kingdom's first (and so far only) female Prime Minister. Controversial in life, this film concentrates more on dealing with the death of her husband than dealing with unions, Argentines, the IRA and the Cold War, but even with that surprising slant, it is still a great movie. 8 strings of pearls out of 10.

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