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Posts Tagged ‘Jim Broadbent’

You know, until I just looked it up, I would have said that Michael Caine had basically forsworn his once-notorious ‘I’ll do anything’ work ethic and had spent the last few years only doing cameo appearances in Christopher Nolan movies. But apparently not: twenty-one films in the last decade, more or less, which is not a bad average by anyone’s standards. Still, you don’t see the great man in really juicy leading roles very much any more, and the chance to see him in action in just this style was the main reason why I trundled along to see James Marsh’s King of Thieves.

Caine plays Brian Reader, a recently-widowed professional criminal (Francesca Annis, who plays his wife, manages to scrape a prominent billing despite carking it in the opening few minutes) who is feeling his age and perhaps looking for a purpose in life. Now, most people in his situation would probably think about taking up yoga or possibly bowls, but given his past and particular skill-set, Reader decides his last hurrah will be to knock off the vault underneath the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit building, stuffed with cash, gold, jewellry and diamonds.

He duly assembles a crack team, or – to be more strictly accurate – a crock team, consisting of Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone and Paul Whitehouse, in addition to the young security expert who is making the whole undertaking possible (a sop to the streaming generation in the form of Charlie Cox). Potentially employed as their fence is an incontinent fishmonger nicknamed named Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon).

Well, as you might expect, things do not go entirely to plan with a team of this calibre (and vintage) on the job, and the traditional heist-movie falling-out between the principals actually occurs before the robbery is even completed. Will the gang of crinkly crims get away with it? Will their clashing egos be their undoing? Or could the police prove to be rather more competent than anyone is giving them credit for?

You know you’ve made it as a British crook when they start making films about your exploits – this has been a flourishing subgenre of the Brit crime movie for many years now. And, before we consider King of Thieves as a piece of entertainment, we should remember that this is a film based on true events (and not even the first one purporting to retell this particular story – The Hatton Garden Job came out last year, and got rather unfavourable notices). All right, so it’s not quite on the same level as some of those jolly fantasies which seem to be just a bit too fascinated by Jack the Ripper and other serial killers, but still – stuff got nicked (most of which remains unrecovered as of the film’s being released). A company went bankrupt as a result. People lost their jobs. You know, just mentioning it.

The film really attempts to skate over this, and initially at least seems to be intent on making use of its cast’s undoubted credentials when it comes to comedy. It is a particularly black, deadpan kind of comedy, mostly revolving around the gang’s advanced ages and the inevitable impact on the execution of the robbery – the look-out keeps dozing off, they have to remember to pack enough of their various medicines and ointments for the duration of the job, and so on. It’s quite broad stuff, but with a cast of this quality it’s still very watchable and entertaining stuff. Even so, to begin with I found myself a little nonplussed: the plot seemed very linear and quite shallow. Would King of Thieves just prove to be another disposable piece of knockabout frivolity, elevated only by its performers?

Well, not quite, because as the film goes on it becomes rather more interesting. What starts off looking like a typical piece of romanticised nonsense glamorising loveable London gangsters actually acquires unexpected depth and grit, and has moments of genuine grit and drama. The gang fall out, in earnest – the cosy camaraderie which initially seems to exist between them is replaced by real tension, and the old saw about honour amongst thieves is shown to be a myth as they set about double-crossing each other with an enthusiasm that belies their years. And here the cast get a chance to show what they can really do: given some of his former roles, it’s hardly a surprise that Ray Winstone can be an effective heavy, but I find I am constantly surprised by Jim Broadbent’s range and ability as an actor. You always kind of expect him to be someone slightly vague and somewhat jolly, but here he turns out to be a genuinely menacing and nasty piece of work, quite capable of holding his own in a confrontation with Michael Caine.

Michael Caine is 85 and it is inevitably a little sad to see him somewhat diminished, physically, by the passage of time: he looks frailer, and it is noticeable that he doesn’t have quite the screen time one might expect; the film seems to have been sympathetically constructed to spread the burden amongst the whole ensemble. But he is still the indisputable guv’nor of this film, still one of the biggest names in British cinema, and he has lost none of his charisma or technical ability as an actor. This is a proper actor’s performance, finding the subtleties of the character and not afraid to be unsympathetic – as the film goes on there’s a suggestion that Reader isn’t just the loveable old burglar he’s initially presented as. This isn’t one of Caine’s best films, but this is still an excellent performance.

There’s nothing very original about King of Thieves, but it’s a pacy and engaging little film and a consistently entertaining one. The gear-change between droll black comedy and semi-serious crime drama is something it never quite manages to pull off as smoothly as it probably needs to, and as I say there is the whole true-crime-as-entertainment thing to consider. But it’s still worth seeing, if only for an excellent cast doing very good work, led by one of Britain’s greatest movie stars.

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Never mind your Schrodinger’s Cat, if you really want to talk about indeterminacy, we need to get onto the topic of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s retirement. As previously noted on this blog, the announcement, after the production of The Wind Rises, that Miyazaki was knocking film direction on the head due to his advanced years was met with a howl of anguish from world-cinema-friendly theatres which was matched only by that marking the release of – allegedly – the final Ghibli film of any kind, When Marnie Was There, in 2016.

And yet what gives? Not only did a Ghibli co-production sneak out last year (the bold human-chelonian romance The Red Turtle), but now Miyazaki has decided he hasn’t actually retired after all and is hoping to get a new movie, How Do You Live?, finished in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Perhaps most confuzzling of all is the appearance on the scene of the new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc, which appears to be largely staffed by former employees of Studio Ghibli.

Studio Ponoc’s first movie is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director of When Marnie Was There and key contributor to a couple of other recent films), and I don’t think it’s overstating the case that the new movie is coat-tailing Ghibli in order to secure the kind of major international release not normally received by the debut movies of non-Anglophone animation houses. The Ghibli influence begins with the choice of source material: in this case, a 1971 novel by the noted English writer Mary Stewart, although the title has been changed from The Little Broomstick, possibly to make it just a little bit more reminiscent of another series of films and books (we will come to this).

We are in fairly classic territory here, anyway – one of the characters wears a hoodie, another is rocking a baseball cap, but there is virtually nothing in the story that would be out of place if the film was actually set fifty years ago. The Mary of the title is a lonely and restless young girl (voiced in the English dub by Ruby Barnhill) who has just been sent to the country to live with her great-aunt (a perhaps unexpected but by no means unwelcome appearance by Lynda Baron of Open All Hours fame). Left to her own devices, one day she wanders off into the woods and makes a couple of surprising discoveries: a mysterious glowing plant, and an old broomstick.

Yup, we are off into a child-friendly tale of rather traditionally-conceived magic and mysticism, for Mary finds that the plant charges her with supernatural power, and the broom whisks her off into another world and deposits her at the Endor School for witches and warlocks. Here she is greeted by the head teacher, Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), and her deputy Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who hail her as a prodigy amongst young witches, a shoo-in as a new student, a potential head girl, and so on. But do the duo have an ulterior motive for delivering such fulsome praise? And does Mary’s own family have a connection to the history of the witch school…?

I remember first seeing the trailer for Mary and the Witch’s Flower and the feeling of bafflement it immediately provoked: the look of the thing is, at first glance, so utterly indistinguishable from an actual Studio Ghibli movie that you wonder what the point of the rebranding is. Never mind Studio Ponoc, they might as well have called it Studio Jubbly or Studio Giblet. Of course, the upside of this is that Ghibli make the most beautiful traditionally-animated movies in the world, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower is also an exceptionally good-looking film. Perhaps it isn’t quite as exquisite as some of Ghibli’s films, and there are a couple of moments where I thought a little more fine detail wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this is still very much business as usual, in a good way.

The question is to what extent this is also true in the story department, for once again you could be forgiven for finding a fair bit of the story to be, well, not exactly burningly innovative. A school for witches and warlocks? With a menagerie of magical beasts? And a lovably Scottish-sounding member of the support staff? To which a lonely child finds themselves transported? Fair enough, they’ve covered themselves by basing the movie on a book which was published when JK Rowling was still quite tiny herself, but it still seems very much like they’re gunning for that lucrative audience hungry for all things which are just a little bit Potter.

I’m not familiar with the Mary Stewart novel, but the script of this movie at least is not really in the same league as those in the other franchise to which I have been alluding. This feels like a movie specifically aimed at quite a young audience, with thin characterisation and a very straightforward story, and in the early stages in particular it ambles along at an amiable pace without a great deal of incident. I found myself in genuine danger of actually falling asleep during the film at one point in the middle; I did go to see an afternoon showing towards the end of a fairly long week, but even so, I don’t think this is a good sign.

I am glad to be able to report that the story does pick up a bit as the film builds towards its climax, with some very engaging sequences: visually it gets very interesting, with a definite steampunk feel to some of fantastical alchemical equipment on display, and also a lot of the… do you know, I very nearly wrote ‘trademark Ghibli surreal grotesqueness on display’. Well, it’s true, this movie does make use of the Ghibli house style – it’s just not a Ghibli movie, officially at least. But the thing is that I don’t believe the change of marque is really going to fool anyone. This is a nice, well-made, inoffensive kid’s animation – I’m not sure it really holds as much for the discerning adult filmgoer as the average Miyazaki movie. What makes it distinctive are its attempts to not be distinctive at all: to emulate pretty much every detail of the Studio Ghibli style of film-making, along with a fair few elements of JK Rowling’s famous stories too. Not a bad film at all, but essentially the cinematic equivalent of high-class karaoke.

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One of the incidental pleasures of life as a pathological movie-goer is that you become intimately familiar with censor-speak: that is, those extra remarks which the BBFC append to a film’s certificate explaining why it’s been given the rating that it has. ‘Injury detail,’ for instance, ‘strong violence’, ‘moderate sex scenes’ (this is moderate on a spectrum running from ‘mild’ to ‘strong’, not ‘disappointing’ to ‘outstanding’, naturally). I was a little surprised, therefore, when the certificate for Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending limited itself to a simple ‘only suitable for viewers 15 and older’. A metropolitan BBC drama with a bit of a period element and proper actors like Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter and Charlotte Rampling? A 15? If it was only a question of a few basic effs and jeffs (‘strong language’) they would surely say so; the same for a quick game of ‘whose leg is it anyway?’ (‘moderate sex scenes’).

Well, much to my surprise it turned out that the main reason the 15 rating on The Sense of an Ending goes unannotated is because, well, if you started, you’d probably never stop. This movie is shot through with a particularly repressed and British kind of grimness, for all that it is superbly written, directed, and performed.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a semi-retired shopkeeper, who seems like a very average chap as the film gets underway. (Perhaps the point of the film is that he actually is a very average chap.) He seems well-set in his daily routine, has reasonable relationships with his ex-wife (Walter) and heavily pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) – he’s perhaps a bit too reserved and irascible to be what you’d genuinely call a nice fellow, but neither does he seem an especially bad person either.

Then Tony receives a solicitor’s letter, telling him he is the recipient of a bequest – one recently-deceased old acquaintance has left him the diary of another, long-dead old friend. He has not heard from either of these people in decades, for all that he had significant relationships with them when he was a young man. However, there is a further complication – the executor of the will, another former intimate of Tony’s, is refusing to hand over the item in question. But why? And why exactly does Tony find himself growing so obsessed with (as he puts it) claiming his legal property? Are there other psychological forces at work here he is unwilling to acknowledge?

Much of the film is told in flashback, with Billy Howle playing the young Tony, and Freya Mavor as Veronica, the girl he finds himself getting so involved with (who eventually becomes the uncooperative executor, played with customary steely froideur by Charlotte Rampling). Emily Mortimer plays Veronica’s mother, Joe Alwyn is Tony’s close friend Adrian, and Matthew Goode gets the much-coveted ‘and’ position in the credits as their history teacher.

For a while I almost felt a bit cheated, for I had turned up to see a film with Jim Broadbent in the lead role – and who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? – and this seemed to be turning into a period drama with Broadbent only participating in the framing sequence – but the action, such as it is, definitely returns to the present day for much of the latter part of the film. At one point in his rather turbulent personal life, the young Tony wrote an impulsive letter, posted it, and then promptly forgot about it, little suspecting the consequences it might have for its recipients.

No, really – who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? Everyone knows him as one of the UK’s greatest comic actors (one of the few people capable of coming in and stealing an episode of Blackadder while ostensibly playing a minor role), but also effortlessly touching when the part requires it, and the man’s sheer work-rate is also startling – I’d completely forgotten that he was in three films I’ve seen in the last year or so, in addition to the ones I actually remembered. And he turned down an OBE, on the grounds that actors aren’t the most deserving recipients of that sort of honour, and he didn’t want to be seen to celebrate the idea of Empire. What a guy.

Of course, a lot of Broadbent’s movie work consists of him coming on and doing a little character cameo, more often than not comedic in nature, so the prospect of him playing the lead role in a film which really gives him a chance to do his stuff was, frankly, a bit mouthwatering, regardless of what the actual movie was about. And Broadbent’s performance lives up to expectations (of course) – in some ways his role here almost resembles the one he plays in the Bridget Jones movies, in that he’s the awkward, almost-bumbling father of a young woman who spends her times rolling her eyes at him a lot. But as the story unfolds the less appealing aspects of Tony Webster rise to the surface – unwittingly or not, this is a man quite possibly responsible for horrible things, and Broadbent isn’t afraid to appear unsympathetic and even quite sinister as he acts upon the fixation which gradually develops in the course of the story.

It seems to me that this is a film about a man looking to get a feeling of closure – that sense of an ending alluded to in the title – regardless of whether this is justified, or suits the other people involved, or is even in any way true. One of the advantages of having the film partly set in a school is that the characters can have fairly abstract debates about the intersections between story, history, and motivation without it seeming contrived, and these certainly feed into the theme of the piece. Can we ever truly know why somebody does something? Even if that person is us? And if that’s the case, can we genuinely claim, or disclaim, responsibility for the results of our actions?

Well, I know it sounds heavy (and perhaps a bit pretentious), but the story itself is engrossing (if not exactly a barrel of laughs) and Batra handles the telling of it with deceptive skill, given the various flash-backs, flash-forwards, and other shifts in time and place. (He even tackles one of the more challenging set-pieces in the directorial playbook – that moment when two people attempt to, er, become fully engaged with one another on the back seat of a car – with impressive deftness. No, really, think about it: you’ve got two actors, a cameraman, a sound operator, possibly the director himself, and all the necessary gear, crammed into the interior of a car. Imagine the logistics. Imagine the jostling for space. Imagine the potential for the camera ending up pointing somewhere deeply unflattering or intrusive. I tell you, there should be a special Oscar just for bringing back-seat whoa-ho-ho to the big screen.) It doesn’t have quite the same emotional payoff as his previous film, The Lunchbox, but then that isn’t really the point of the exercise.

You don’t emerge from The Sense of an Ending blazing with delight or quite ready to rave about the film to strangers in the street, but that’s understandable – this is a film about the ambiguities of life, quite ambiguous itself in many ways, with many questions left intentionally unresolved at the conclusion. But it is still a deeply satisfying piece of drama, with the performances of the rest of the cast as impressive as that of Broadbent, and the writing and direction not showing many obvious flaws, either. It’s a quietly dark film, which may not endear it to everyone, but it’s also an extremely accomplished one, and I wonder if the producers haven’t done themselves a disservice by effectively releasing it as counter-programming to Fast and Furious 8: an Autumn release might have made this a genuine awards contender. Nevertheless, no matter the season, this is an impressive movie.

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The cinematic calendar used to be so straightforward: big films across the summer and – to a lesser extent – at Christmas, Oscar-bait early in the year, and unpretentious genre movies the rest of the time. That was what you could pretty much expect down the local multiplex, but things seem to changing – the onset of blockbuster season has been creeping earlier and earlier in recent years, while I’m seeing signs of an odd phenomenon developing in March. This month seems to be turning into a dumping ground for huge and expensive studio releases which the producers seem to have lost all faith in, an elephant’s graveyard of the overblown and underscripted.

This is largely based, I must say, on the fact that it was this time last year that John Carter of Mars came out, and currently we are enjoying the presence on our screens of Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings. The sheer scale and scope of this movie, not to mention the stellar cast list, would normally suggest a major release. As it is, the movie seems to have been slipped out by people who don’t really know what to do with it. This may be because Cloud Atlas is barking, barking mad.

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How to describe this movie? It does not have a plot. At least, not one; it has six, with tenuous connections linking them.

  • In 1849, a young man (Jim Sturgess) assisting his father’s slave trading activities in the South Pacific falls foul of the avaricious intentions of a corrupt doctor, with his one chance of survival lying in the hands of a former slave.
  • In 1936, an ambitious and amoral young musician (Ben Whishaw) finds work as the amanuensis of a distinguished and elderly composer. However, when the older man attempts to take the credit for his employee’s original work, he finds himself in an impossible situation.
  • In 1972, an investigative journalist (Halle Berry) discovers a conspiracy to smear the nuclear power industry by certain other vested interests. It quickly becomes apparent that the conspirators are more than happy to kill to protect their secret.
  • In 2012, a literary agent (Jim Broadbent) finds himself pursued for non-existent royalties by the gangster relatives of a former client. However, his choice of refuge leaves a lot to be desired…
  • In 2144, a clone servitor (Doona Bae) is rescued from her corporate enslavement and shown something of the wider world which she inhabits – a world which some people believe she has the power to greatly change for the better.
  • And in a far more distant, post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman (Tom Hanks) belonging to  a primitive tribe strikes an alliance with an emissary from a more advanced civilisation, one that may affect the fates of every surviving human on Earth.

The movie cuts between these different stories across its very considerable running time. Oh, but if only this film was as straightforward as that makes it sound! In addition to the simple narrative links between the different plots – one character appears in two of them, Whishaw’s character reads a book about Sturgess, Doona Bae watches a movie adaptation of Jim Broadbent’s experiences, and so on – there are all sorts of other odd things happening. The main characters of all the stories share the same suggestive birthmark, and one character appears to have prophetic dreams concerning one of the later stories.

Most obviously, however, the film is mainly held together by the fact that the same actors appear in different roles in the different stories. So in addition to the tribesman, Tom Hanks plays the murderous doctor in 1849, a nuclear physicist in 1972, and so on. Just to give you an idea of the sheer scope and bounding absurdity of Cloud Atlas, in this film Hugh Grant – Hugh Grant! – plays a slave trader, a hotel manager, the nuclear plant boss, Jim Broadbent’s dodgy brother, a Korean restaurant manager – not the manager of a Korean restaurant, but a Korean man who manages an eating-spot – and a cannibal warlord.

I have to confess that, after a while, each appearance by one of the ensemble cast in a new guise was greeted with hoots of laughter at the screening I attended. This comparison-wrangling idea seems to have caught on, with the Wachowskis describing this movie as ‘Moby Dick meets 2001: A Space Odyssey but one British critic riposting with ‘Little Britain meets Blake’s 7′ (if I’d taken my own Comparison Wrangler to this movie I suspect his head would have exploded). I must confess that I tend more towards the latter view, with the important provisos that I actually like Blake’s 7, and that some of the more outrageous dressing-up seems to be intentionally played for laughs.

I mean, I can’t imagine any meeting by sane and intelligent movie creatives where they sat around and said ‘Okay, we’ve got this character of a middle-aged English nurse, a real battleaxe of a woman, who shall we get to play her?’ and the choice of – wait for it – Hugo Weaving could possibly be intended seriously. The same probably goes for Ben Whishaw’s appearance as Hugh Grant’s wife. Even so, I honestly have no idea what to make of Tom Hanks’ brief turn as a thuggish, shaven-headed  author, where he employs an accent that honestly defies description – is it meant to be Cockney? Irish? Pakistani? I truly had no idea.

Of course, this also leads the film into dodgy territory, as many of the cast pop up in – er – trans-ethnic makeup at various points. Halle Berry probably gets the medal here, playing characters of four different ethnicities and both genders at different points in the movie. The film never seems to be doing so for intentionally comic effect, and no-one actually blacks up, but even so I think this is probably questionable, and definitely adds to the vaulting weirdness of the experience.

That said, taken on their own terms and overlooking all the fun and games with casting and makeup, several of the stories work really well on their own terms – as vignettes, if nothing else. Being the kind of person that I am, I most enjoyed the Wachowski’s attempts at industrial dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF, which are visually superb and include some brilliantly-mounted action, but the Broadbent-led section is also hugely entertaining and the most comedic in tone. One thing you can say about Cloud Atlas is that its genre-hopping and tone-switching mean that it really does have something for everyone somewhere in its running time.

I had feared this movie might be pretentious and smug, but I didn’t find this at all – I found it to be terrific entertainment, with literally never a dull moment even across three hours. If it had been an hour longer I think I would still have thoroughly enjoyed it. It is by no means perfect, either in the specifics of the individual stories (the degenerate argot used by Hanks in the post-apocalypse really needs subtitles), or in its wider message: I still have no idea what the film as a whole is trying to suggest, beyond a vague universality in human aspirations and the challenges we face across the ages. Nevertheless, the insane ambition and vaulting oddness of Cloud Atlas, together with the fact that this is a technically superb film, combine to make it one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the cinema in ages. An early contender for film of the year.

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If the first weekend of 2012 is anything to go by, it looks like being a bumper year for the local arthouse: Friday night and two showings (of The Artist) sold out hours in advance, with a healthy overspill of disappointed punters into Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, myself amongst them. I was planning on seeing this movie eventually anyway, although how much of this resulted from horrified fascination I am not sure.

Just to give you some context, the news in late 2010 of this film’s main casting was greeted with a Daily Mail headline wondering ‘Can Meryl Streep do justice to Margaret Thatcher?‘ – to which my instant response was ‘Well, that depends on whether or not Meryl Streep has her own firing squad.’ Yes, once again I find myself in the awkward position where (sort of) professional etiquette requires me to be objective, detached, and measured about a film the subject of which fills me with unmitigated contempt and hostility strong and not entirely positive emotions. My opinion of Margaret Thatcher as a person is that she was a horribly misguided harpy obviously completely immaterial, and hopefully I will be able to prevent it from influencing this review of Lloyd’s film in any way. 

Modern-day London, and Margaret Thatcher (Streep) is confined to her home by armed guards, under virtual house arrest (and quite right too, one might think). However, this is simply because advancing age has reduced this once forceful personality to a demented old bat frequently confused elderly lady. She is, for one thing, constantly visited by the hallucinatory form of her dead husband, Denis (played on a single note of irksome joviality by Jim Broadbent). Struggling to cope with her reduced circumstances, Thatcher finds her mind drifting back to happier times.

Her youth as a grocer’s daughter, her entry into politics, her rise to party leader and then Prime Minister and the greater battles which follows – the film covers them all. The validity, in principle, of a Thatcher biopic is undeniable, for all that the woman herself remains the malevolent presence at the root of so much that is wrong in Britain even today a massive figure in recent history. The fact remains that she did a lot to for the UK, and this deserves to be remembered, for good or ill.

That said, The Iron Lady is presented in the broadest of strokes and tips its hand through its very structure. It’s just as much a fictionalised account of Thatcher’s life today as it is a genuine biography. Streep, it must be said, is exceptional in both strands – her Margaret Thatcher impression is technically astounding and ultimately deeply scary highly impressive.

However, starting in the present day with a doddery frail Thatcher is as blatant a grab at the sympathy of the audience as it’s possible to imagine and it gives the lie to any suggestion that this is an impartial portrait of its subject. It seemed to me to be a rather obvious attempt to paint a human face on the old dragon a forbiddingly iconic figure: and in doing so it makes it clear that this is to be a human story rather than an account or analysis of political history.

It’s true that this film has drawn fire from all areas of the political spectrum, which some suggest indicates the film’s impartiality. To which I say: cobblers this is not really the case. Commentators from the left are generally doing so on the grounds of the film’s political vacuity, while Thatcher’s cronies supporters on the right are vociferously railing against the (I repeat, fictional) scenes depicting Thatcher’s infirmity and encroaching senility. There’s hardly any criticism of her actual career, whether implied or open, and arguably quite the opposite is true: in one scene she’s depicted almost as a living saint, acolytes kneeling at her feet to pay their obeisance.

(All right, all right: I’ll stop now. But I think you get the idea.)

The politics of this film are, at best, simplistic. Thatcher is depicted as surrounded by conflict throughout her political career, but no attempt is made to explain why, or indeed who her opponents were. (The closest the film gets is a scene in which Thatcher, teaching her daughter to drive, endlessly shrieks ‘Move to the right! Move to the right!’) Thatcher is presented almost apolitically, as a woman struggling to make her way in a man’s world.

The key image of this film, and it’s one that’s repeated in all kinds of permutations, is of Margaret Thatcher as a lone woman surrounded by men. Sometimes she’s their leader, but she’s almost always set in opposition to them on some level. If this is an attempt to depict her as some kind of feminist figure, then it’s an odd move – she was hardly noted for encouraging or assisting other women to follow in her wake, and her defining political characteristics – iron self-belief, combativeness, disdain for compromise – are hardly traditionally female qualities.

The film briefly touches on her fixation on the men in her family – her father (Iain Glen), her husband and her son (thankfully, Mark Thatcher never shows up in the flesh) – and also her relative neglect of her daughter (well played by Olivia Colman) but doesn’t venture too far down this avenue. Presumably these waters were just a bit too deep and treacherous and so we are left with Thatcher’s political life framed in extremely basic terms.

Historically, the film is even more shaky ground, as the order of events is cheerfully rewritten to suit the narrative arc imposed by Abi Morgan’s script: most glaringly, the Falklands War sequence occurs after the miners’ strike and the Brighton bombing, simply so that unalloyed triumph is only seen after the deepest crises of the early years of Thatcher’s tenure have occurred. Here more than anywhere else it’s clear that this is not a biopic in the strictest sense: history is up for grabs.

That said, various historic figures pop up: very little Reagan (the producers presumably skittish of upsetting conservative American audiences), sadly, but a succession of famous British politicians are brought to the screen by some peculiarly effective casting choices: John Sessions plays Ted Heath, Tony Head plays Geoffrey Howe, and Richard E Grant plays Michael Heseltine. All of them are fun, moreso in fact than Jim Broadbent who – rarely – gives a performance that’s less than completely brilliant, though this is largely down to the script. As the phantom Denis he’s just a bit too jolly and easy-going, given what we’ve learned of the man. The fact he played a very similar role in the far superior Iris does not help much either.

One of the intentions of The Iron Lady‘s makers seems to have been to produce a portrait of the twilight years of someone once steeped in power and significance but now struggling to accept that this is gone. To some extent, the film is successful in doing so. But the very fact that it’s about a figure as divisive as Margaret Thatcher causes problems – hardly anyone can come to this film without their own preconceptions coming into play, one way or the other.

And, surely, to tell Thatcher’s story solely on a human and personal level is to miss the point. Thatcher was, for good or ill, an icon, an ideological touchstone, in some ways a force of nature: to make a film which excludes all this and focusses on her purely as a human being is to ignore almost everything which made (and still makes) her such a hugely significant figure. As a result, there’s a sense in which The Iron Lady feels rather disingenuous throughout. Streep is brilliant, but the rest of the film is muddled, tentative and lightweight: the lady herself would not approve.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st February 2002:

And now for something a little different [this followed a review of Ocean’s Eleven – A]. Richard Eyre’s Iris is the story of the last years of the brilliant philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, based on the book by her husband John Bayley. As the film opens Iris and John (played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent) are living in cosy, if slightly decrepit domesticity. Both are noted academics, and they seem completely happy with their lives. And then Iris begins to unknowingly repeat herself. Her latest book becomes a struggle to write. She finds it impossible to hold onto her train of thought in an interview. Medical tests reveal the truth: she has Alzheimer’s disease, and the dissolution of her intellect will be gradual but implacable.

Intercut with this is a series of flashbacks to the romance of the couple in the 1950s – here Iris is played by Kate Winslet and John by Hugh Bonneville. It provides a real insight into the foundation of their relationship, and a poignant counterpoint to Iris’ later decline.

Iris has an intelligent, subtle script but its success, which is considerable, depends entirely on two devastatingly powerful performances by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent. Dench flawlessly suggests the horror of a philosopher losing her ability to think, and later on is painfully convincing as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. But it’s Broadbent who in many ways carries the film, and it’s John’s story as much as it is Iris’. He is staggeringly good and deserves to win every award he’s nominated for (and he’s been nominated for quite a few). They are backed up by Winslet and Bonneville who are very nearly as good playing the younger versions – it’s utterly believable that these two will grow up to be the older couple.

I could object to the way the film suggests that Alzheimer’s is somehow more of a tragedy when it happens to a great mind – it’s always a tragedy, full stop. Or to the way it suggests that Iris Murdoch’s decline and death was somehow the most notable part of her life, when the exact opposite is the case. But these are objections to the film’s conception, rather than its execution. Iris is profoundly moving, extremely powerful drama, and I might suggest – and I hope not to have to make this recommendation too often! – that you take a hankie along with you if you go. It’s that good a film.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 10th July 2003:

You know, as I go about my daily business, people often come up to me and say, ‘Awix, what do you think of Dickens?’ To which I invariably reply, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never been to one.’ But ha ha ha joking apart, my ignorance is not entirely feigned, as the only movies based on Charles Dickens’ work that I’ve encountered are Oliver! and The Muppet Christmas Carol, neither of which, I suspect, are fully satisfying to the purist.

Well, actually, that has just changed, with the release of Douglas McGrath’s Nicholas Nickleby, an all-star précis of the novel of the same name. Charlie Hunnam stars in the title role as an honourable and decent young man whose family falls upon hard times after his father dies. Forced to fall back on the charity of their wicked uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer), Nicholas is packed off to a ghastly boarding school in Yorkshire run by the grotesque Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) while his demure sister (costume-drama specialist Romola Garai) has to contend with the lascivious advances of superannuated lecher Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox in self-parodic mode). This being a Dickens story, the tale which follows is lengthy and episodic, involving thwarted romance, social injustice, unexpected paternity and many top hats…

Any doubts that this is, at heart, a movie from the English Heritage school of film-making were fully dispelled by the special offer available at the cinema – see Nicholas Nickleby and get discounted membership of the National Trust! And so it proves, as all the old costume drama staples get wheeled on, with a vague sense of self-important smugness creeping into the production: look at how classy the production values are, and marvel at this wonderful cast, seems to be the subtext.

The cast is indeed very impressive: as well as the artistes mentioned above you’ve got Tom Courtenay, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall, Jamie Bell, Kevin McKidd, Nathan Lane, and many more where they came from. But to be honest the actual performances are really quite variable. Hunnam, Bell, and the other cast members don’t really make much of an impression – mainly because the script insists they all be blandly decent throughout. And some of the others are, well, just rather hammy. This suits some parts of the story rather better than others. The lighter, warmer sections of the film are as funny and enjoyable as the director clearly hopes they will be, and are not even too badly unbalanced by some rather eccentric creative decisions, such as the casting of Dame Edna Everage as Mrs Crummles, or the appearance of the ever-camp Alan Cumming, who seems perpetually on the verge of doing the Highland Fling (no, this is not a double entendre).

But those parts of the film which are essentially social commentary don’t lend themselves to this style of acting. The Squeers, in particular, should be hateful monsters – but mainly due to the richly grotesque panto villain performances of Broadbent and Stevenson, they actually come across as quite funny in an unpleasant sort of way. This seriously undermines the impact of this element of the movie.

However, some of the performances are unequivocally praiseworthy. Tom Courtenay is hugely likeable and assured as Newman Noggs (come on, it’s Dickens, they’ve all got names like that), and – this was a huge surprise to me – stealing the show as wicked Uncle Ralph is Christopher Plummer. I’ve always just thought of him as the bloke out of The Sound of Music (and okay, maybe Star Trek VI), but he comes in here and does the business – he’s effortlessly commanding and believable, without resorting to overacting like so many of his co-stars.

I don’t know the original novel at all, so I can’t really judge how this stands up as an adaptation of it. It’s clear in a number of places that some quite rigorous trimming has taken place, the climax in particular seems a little abrupt and slightly confused. But, on the other hand, the story feels quite satisfying and there’s rarely any doubt as to what’s going on. There are some quite good gags of various kinds and if certain bits don’t appear to serve the plot at all, this is usually made up for in terms of sheer entertainment value.

Ultimately Nicholas Nickleby falls into the category of ‘all right, if you like that sort of thing’. It’s possible that this story is unadaptable – into a film of conventional length, anyway – and given the relative weakness of the central role it’s clear that it is fundamentally flawed as a serious drama. But as a demonstration of various different acting styles by some big name performers, as a light, broad comedy, and as a kind of undemanding Dickens-lite, it’s quite acceptable. A bit of a curate’s egg, but an entirely inoffensive one.

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