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Posts Tagged ‘Meryl Streep’

It was Friday night, and the lights were low (as you would expect, in a cinema). There were people everywhere – a sense of expectation hanging in the air. My impatience was slowly creeping up my spine and growing strong. Sitting there no-one could harm me. They just stared at me and wondered why.

As regular readers will be able to confirm, I can keep this sort of thing up indefinitely, but I expect you are more interested in hearing about Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again than in clumsily repurposed pop song lyrics, so let’s crack on with that. As it seems like the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of everything except shortages, cinema tickets are not quite big enough to accommodate that title in full, and so the ones we ended up with were apparently for a film entitled Mamma Mia! HWGA. By a strange coincidence, when I asked Next Desk Colleague if he wanted to come and see the film, his response actually was ‘Hwga!’, or at least a very similar sound. The same was true of nearly all my male co-workers when I broached the possibility with them – although there was one guy whose response of ‘I have a serious issue with the intrinsically non-diegetic nature of the musical as a cinematic form’ rather impressed me. Nearly all the distaff members of the office hurled themselves at the chance, though.

So I eventually rocked up to the new film in the company of a bevy of women of various ages and nationalities, all rather excited and wont to emit vowel sounds at unexpected moments as proceedings got underway. Fortunately my Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant had also agreed to come, so I wasn’t the only possessor of a Y chromosome in the party and didn’t feel quite so much of a stranger in a strange land. (I was still a bit worried I might end up spending two hours doing the Peter Rabbit face, though.)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in case you have recently arrived from Neptune, is a sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, an alarmingly successful contraption based around creatively-cast performers doing unorthodox cover versions of songs by Abba, one of the greatest pop groups in the history of the planet. This recipe ended up making $615 million, somehow, and so inevitably a sequel has arrived.

The first thing we should say is – now, does this constitute a spoiler? It’s a plot point that’s introduced virtually at the start, so I’d usually say no, but at the same time it’s deliberately obfuscated in the trailer, so… Oh, what the hell (spoiler alert). So – some time has passed since the first film, and central figure Donna (Meryl Streep) has carked it in the meantime, though whether this was a creative decision or just the result of Streep not really wanting to do the movie I’m not sure; suffice to say that despite her prominence in the publicity, her actual involvement is minimal.

This opens up the film to employ a structure which will probably be familiar to fans of The Godfather Part 2, although quite how big the crossover audience between The Godfather and Mamma Mia! is I’m not sure. Basically, we have one storyline which is a prequel to the original film, in which a young Donna (Lily James, whose publicity material will probably now contain the words ‘has been compared to Meryl Streep’ in perpetuity) leaves Oxford University, goes travelling in Europe, and embarks on the regimen of random promiscuity which will eventually leave her a single parent in charge of a rather cruddy Greek hotel.

The other plot strand concerns Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is struggling to reopen the same hotel thirty years later, with the help of her mother’s friends and widower (Pierce Brosnan). It soon becomes clear that Brosnan is basically being kept locked in a shed, well away from any sheet music, in case he attempts to sing again. (We will return to this.) Also helping out is a new character played by Andy Garcia, named Fernando (which if you ask me is tantamount to cheating). Will the reopening of the hotel be a big success? Will Sophie’s other two possible-fathers (Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth) make it to the island in time? Will anyone get the chance to sing ‘King Kong Song’?

I am tempted to say that if you’re the kind of person who found The Greatest Showman just a bit too gritty and hard-hitting, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will probably be right up your alley, filled as it is with appealing young actors, some of the broadest comedy turns imaginable, and – of course – a selection of indestructibly great pop classics.

That said, of course, I suspected this film might face what I call the More Abba Gold problem. Permit me to explain – Abba Gold is pretty much an essential album for anyone interested in pop music, being literally all killer, no filler: perfect hooks and choruses, emotional resonance, immaculate production, and so on. Every song on it is deservedly famous. More Abba Gold? Not so much. I mean, it’s still got songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Summer Night City’ on it, which are quite well known, but also things like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘So Long’ which I doubt I’ve ever heard. The question is this: are there enough first-rank Abba songs left to fill up another two hour movie?

Well… they kind of try to dodge this issue, mainly by reprising some of the songs from the first time round. There’s another go at ‘Mamma Mia’ itself, a reprise of ‘Dancing Queen’, and a moment when one of the characters, in a French restaurant with a bust of Napoleon, finds himself reaching for a metaphor for defeat, leading to the inevitable production number (this was probably the first moment at which I found myself with my head between my knees in the cinema). But some of the songs are more obscure this time around – the first big tune, bizarrely, is ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, which at least occasions a truly mind-boggling solo from Celia Imrie, while also popping up are things like ‘Andante Andante’, ‘Kisses of Fire’, and ‘Why Did It Have to Be Me?’ The film’s big climax comes when Cher swoops in, basically playing herself, and sings ‘Fernando’ to Garcia (though I have to wonder what Garcia’s character was doing carrying a rifle across the Rio Grande in 1959, when he would have been about twelve). (The soundtrack album features Meryl Streep’s version of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which I must warn you does not appear at any point in the film. Not that you shouldn’t stay till the end of the credits, though.)

Still, even an obscure Abba song is most likely a masterpiece of composition and production, and overall the music passes muster. But I have to say that much of the charm, if that’s the right word, of the original film is that it’s basically about a bunch of randy middle-aged people on an island together launching unprovoked assaults on the highlights of the Abba back catalogue. The focus here is much more on randy young people, and despite winning performances from many of the cast (and I have to say that if Josh Dylan, who plays the young Skarsgard, ever visits my workplace he will be beating women off with a stick, based on the reactions of my colleagues), it is somehow less mesmerically weird and exciting and funny than the original film.

We’re practically into the home straight by the time all the original characters reconvene on the island, and I have to say I can’t help feeling some of them are a little underserved. I didn’t go to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to listen to Lily James singing; I went there to listen to Pierce Brosnan not singing (and to watch Colin Firth not dancing, for that matter). Brosnan is permitted a brief reprise of his legendary version of ‘S.O.S’ but is otherwise restricted to doing choruses alongside other people, which if you ask me is just not fair.

Still, everyone was singing along with the choruses during the film, and we all emerged with big smiles upon our faces, so I suppose Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really does the job as a piece of entertainment. It isn’t as riotously silly as the first film, but it’s still a case of a deeply spurious non-plot being deployed to facilitate as many wonderful tunes as they can possibly get away with, topped off with a lot of knockabout humour and even a few quite touching emotional moments. I expect it will end up doing very well for itself. It’s simple and it’s plain – why should I complain?

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I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m getting a little bit tired of having to start virtually every new film review by talking about the ‘unique moment’ which America and the rest of western society currently seems to be going through. Maybe this is not in fact a moment; maybe things really have undergone a permanent and fundamental change, one way or another. I would submit it is really too early to tell. Nevertheless, it certainly seems to be the case that Hollywood believes a unique moment is in progress – based on the films that are coming out in time for this year’s awards season, where being the right kind of bien pensant is a reliable route towards success.

Then again, exactly what is this moment which I can’t seem to stop going on about? Is it the Trump moment? The Weinstein moment? The Black Lives Matter moment? Are these separate things or all facets of the same thing? Once again, I think it’s really too early to be sure, but having a good go at making an oblique comment on several of these topics is Steven Spielberg’s The Post – the unusual speed with which Spielberg got this production together and into cinemas revealing the extent to which the director believes it’s a topical movie.

And maybe it is, for all that it is mainly set in 1971 and concerns the Vietnam War. The title refers to the Washington Post, which as the story starts is generally regarded as a local, family paper, published by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who for most of her life has been a society hostess rather than a businesswoman. Rather more experienced and pugnacious is her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a career newsman constantly on the lookout for a major scoop.

And when one comes, it is to their competitors at the New York Times: a disillusioned government analyst leaks papers relating to the US government’s involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the war was deemed unwinnable by the mid 1960s. Richard Nixon’s White House immediately takes out an injunction against the NYT, stalling publication on the ground this publication is a threat to national security.

But the newshounds of the Post have also been on the case and indeed managed to track down the source of the leak, getting their hands on thousands of pages of classified documents with the potential to seriously embarrass every American administration going back decades. However, the Post is also undergoing a stock market flotation and a potentially controversial, perhaps even illegal move like this is guaranteed to scare the investors. Bradlee is certain that the Post should publish; Graham’s lawyers and most of the board of the company are equally convinced this will be a disastrous move. So which way is Katharine Graham going to jump…?

Well, you can probably guess the answer, all things considered, and it is to Spielberg and his writers’ considerable credit that he has managed to make a gripping and pacy thriller out of a story where the conclusion is never particularly in doubt. Then again, the film is not so much about the story as it is about the message, which is one about the importance of freedom of the press and its role in holding the powerful to proper account.

The subtext of this movie is so clear that even a very stable genius could probably work it out – it’s about a clash between a hostile, mendacious president (Nixon is presented as a shadowy, malevolent presence) and the principled heroes of the fourth estate. I suppose the period setting of the film provides a certain camouflage – there are various scenes where the setting of type is lovingly dwelt upon, and the key moment at which the presses finally thunder into life – but it’s all still very applicable to the current situation. Folk in the news media, especially the press, are not so much fake as paladins of probity with an impeccable regard for the truth. (Did I mention what good reviews The Post has received from newspaper critics?)

On top of this, the movie manages the neat trick of attaching itself to two current causes celebre, by also managing to say something about the place of women in society, too. Quite apart from the fact that both Graham and Bradlee were to some extent Washington insiders who had to choose where their loyalties truly lay, the film also makes much of the challenges she faces trying to be taken seriously as a businesswoman: during key moments of challenge she is literally surrounded by men, in a hardly accidental piece of composition, and equally finds herself with an honour guard of young women in her moments of triumph.

Of course, as this is a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, you know it is going to have a certain heft and quality about it. Spielberg works his usual magic of taking a story which could have been a little dry and portentous and making it accessible, funny, and actually quite thrilling in places. Hanks in particular is on top form, but Streep is also doing good work (not at all over-rated, on this evidence), and there’s an ensemble of fine actors further down the cast list, including people like Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Bruce Davison and Sarah Paulson.

There is a tendency for films dealing with big events in recent American history to come over here and feel slightly incongruous, largely because the events depicted have no resonance for British viewers – a recent example would be Detroit, which appeared accompanied by a stentorian ‘It’s time we learned the TRUTH!’ ad campaign, to which my response was, ‘the truth about what, exactly?’ The Post manages to evade this pitfall, partly by dint of its superior storytelling, partly through focusing on more universal issues of truth and freedom. Sometime members of the current American administration have occasionally referred to the media as the real opposition party, and it may be they have a point. The Post is essentially the heaviest of Hollywood heavyweights coming together and making a point about what the United States is supposedly about, and it’s as effective a statement as you might expect. This movie concludes with the beginning of the end of the presidency it depicts, and if it doesn’t wind up playing a role in bringing down Trump, it won’t be for want of trying.

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Having already polished off Mrs Pankhurst, Maggie Thatcher and the hotel-owner from Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep moves on to a more significant figure in recent history in Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins (she is, naturally, playing the title role). To be honest, this is a movie which has fallen victim to an odd curse – a curse which only seems to affect movies in pairs…

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Every now and then some form of folie a deux grips film-makers and they end up making multiple movies on the same subject, seemingly completely by chance. (Well, the zeitgeist may have something to do with it, I suppose.) So you sometimes end up in a situation like the one where Dante’s Peak and Volcano both come out in the same year, or Deep Impact and Armageddon, or even two versions of the Robin Hood story (I’m thinking of the Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergin movies, both of which appeared in 1991). In a similar, but still rather baffling manner, someone somewhere seems to have decreed that 2016 will be the year of movies about Florence Foster Jenkins, of all people.

Do I really have to go through the explanation of who this woman was again? If I seem tetchy it’s because I’ve already done it, not that long ago (or so it feels anyway), because the other Florence Foster Jenkins movie only came out a couple of months back: Marguerite, a French movie presenting a heavily fictionalised version of the story. Frears’ film sticks closer to fact, in theory at least.

Oh well. The movie opens in New York City, 1944, and initially appears to be about the complicated personal circumstances of actor and general bon viveur St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) – Bayfield works with, and is apparently devoted to, his wife (Streep), but at the end of every evening he goes off to his own flat where he lives with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson). But then, after Florence decides she feels strong enough to resume her own singing career, it looks for a while as if the film is actually going to be about her accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg): McMoon is startled to discover that his employer, despite her love of music, has a singing voice that primarily resembles somebody stabbing a cat to death, and yet she is indulged and kept ignorant of this by everyone around her.

It’s only after quite a long while that the film actually starts being about Florence in earnest: following one especially successful soiree, she feels moved to record herself singing, and inevitably a copy of this escapes into the wild, causing something of a sensation amongst the public and deep alarm to Bayfield and McMoon. A concert in front of an unsympathetic audience at Carnegie Hall looms…

You can imagine the key personnel of this film emerging, grim-faced, from a screening of Marguerite, and blessing the English-speaking public for their entrenched antipathy towards subtitled films, because otherwise their film would have been in very serious trouble: not only are they based on the life of the same person, but they feature some of the same musical numbers, and even some virtually identical costuming choices. This wouldn’t matter so much were it not for the fact that Marguerite does it all much better – it’s a subtler, wittier film, broader in its scope and with a more interesting cast of characters. I know it’s bad form to claim to be writing about Florence Foster Jenkins but actually go on about the merits of Marguerite instead, but there you go, in this case it’s unavoidable.

The curious thing is that there was potential here for a somewhat more distinctive take on the story – there certainly seem to have been enough idiosyncrasies to Florence Foster Jenkins’ actual life, most of which the French film ended up ignoring. (I’m assuming here that Frears and his team aren’t just making stuff up, by the way.) And yet the film shies away from being wholly a bio-pic of the lady. The basic creative process appears to have been: ‘woman can’t sing well – must be a comedy’.

Well, there are comedies and comedies, and this one is definitely towards the broader end of the scale. The main problem here is that, especially when singing, Streep is trying too hard. ‘Look at how badly I’m singing, isn’t it hilarious,’ is the message she is sending off – she is proclaiming badness rather than unconsciously confessing to it, and this is rather less effective. To be fair, her whole performance is a bit TV sitcom.

Much better is Hugh Grant, in a role which plays to his strengths. I’ve always thought Grant was a very underrated performer, his indifference towards acting too often being mistaken for an indifferent talent. He carries the film here, giving a witty and subtle and actually rather complex and layered performance. Hugh Grant doesn’t make a lot of films, and seeing him here really makes you wish this wasn’t the case.

In the end Florence Foster Jenkins is a bit of a mixed bag – it looks fine (through some cinematic sorcery they have managed to make Liverpool indistinguishable from 1940s New York), the performances aren’t actually bad (some, as noted, are actually very good), and there are some quite amusing moments, especially if you haven’t seen that other film I keep banging on about. But the title character never really comes to life or moves you, which is surely what the film-makers were intending. If you have a choice of films about bad singing to watch, then I’m afraid I can only recommend this one to people with a pathological hatred of the French: to paraphrase Carly Simon, somebody else has done it much better.

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And now, a franchise movie with a difference. I have an unfortunate tendency to be cynical and were I to give this part of myself free rein, I would probably end up saying things like ‘the first whiff of awards season is in the air, for they have started to release classy and serious films about how horrible everything was in the past’. There’s nothing like misery in painstakingly researched frocks to grab the attention of the average gong panel.

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Occasioning this sort of disreputable thinking is Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, which concerns itself with the various travails of the members of the women’s suffrage movement in the Edwardian era. While various historical figures make an appearance in the course of the film, the audience’s point of identification is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wife, mother, and factory worker who finds herself drawn into the orbit of the suffragettes almost by accident. When the government is perceived to have reneged on a promise to extend voting rights to women, the struggle turns both vicious and violent, and – inevitably – Maud has to decide whether she’s serious about her commitment to the cause. Needless to say, this comes at no small cost to her, but it seems that sacrifice is part of the process…

Now, as a regular UK cinemagoer it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me when people start applauding at the end of a film – it’s usually a sign that we’ve just watched something fairly exceptional. Suffragette got a round of applause at the (very busy) screening I attended, and I have to say I was slightly surprised. It may just be that this particular cinema is very popular with politically-engaged types and they were just showing support for the film’s theme and message, which is unexceptionable, rather than its execution, which is not, if we’re honest, particularly distinctive.

Make no mistake, this is a movie which has all the usual British costume drama virtues in spades – Edwardian London is beautifully staged, and there is a fine cast, mostly made up of the usual suspects for this kind of film – Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Romola Garai, and so on. It kind of goes against the grain of the film to say this, but I thought the most impressive performance was from Brendan Gleeson, playing the tough cop assigned to shutting down the suffragettes. Gleeson manages to take this character and make him, if not actually sympathetic, then at least a recognisable human being, unlike every other male character (even Ben Whishaw – at the start of a busy month for him – comes across as rather contemptible by the time the film ends). But then I am always partial to a bit of Brendan Gleeson.

Prominent though she is in the publicity material (presumably to assist with marketing this movie in the States), Meryl Streep is not actually in the movie that much, contributing little more than a cameo as Mrs Pankhurst herself. It’s by no means a bad performance, but Streep doesn’t get a lot to work with, and it is a little disconcerting that the magic of cinema means that Emmeline Pankhurst looks uncannily like Margaret Thatcher.

So, fans of a certain flavour of British cinema will find themselves more or less in their comfort zone, although personally I found Gavron’s fondness for shaky-cam distracting rather than involving (the nausea-inducing effect of this may have been exacerbated by the fact I was watching the film on a huge screen from practically the front row of the cinema, of course). There are signs of the film-makers attempting to make something a bit more edgy and committed, however, of which the wobbly camerawork is just one sign. Certainly the BBFC advisory warning ‘contains scenes of force feeding’ is not one usually found on your typical Jane Austen adaptation.

This is just one example of the unremittingly horrible time that Mulligan’s character has in the course of the movie – she is patronised, belittled, clobbered, arrested, imprisoned, forcibly stripped (calm down gents, there’s nothing to see), thrown out by her husband, blackmailed, has her son taken from her, arrested again, force fed… the list goes ever on and on. I suppose it is just about possible that all this stuff happened to one person, but in the context of the film it all seems a bit manipulative and contrived, as though the struggle for the vote wasn’t a worthy enough cause in and of itself, and this has to be the story of someone who really and properly goes through the mill.

It’s not even as if the film concludes with everyone happily trooping off to the ballot box – the film climaxes shortly after Derby Day 1913 (you will either know the historical significance of this or you won’t), with the actual vote not going to women until 1918 (but hey, it was still over half a century before Switzerland). What’s missing is recognition of the important impact that the First World War had on British society and culture, part of which was the empowerment of women. But that would perhaps have made for too big and complex a story. (I suppose the same reasoning explains why the film is arguably conflating the suffragette cause with the socialist movement, as someone I saw the film with suggested was the case: the core of the suffragette movement was made up of women much more middle-class than Mulligan’s character.)

This is by no means a bad film and it does shed light on an important moment in our modern history, doing so with sincerity and no small degree of skill. But it’s almost as though the film-makers don’t trust the audience to be interested in the story on its own merits, which is why this film is arguably more simplistic and manipulative than it really needed to be. Still very watchable if you like this sort of thing, though.

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Hark! What’s that? Is it ‘a water buffalo’? Is it ‘the QE2 sounding its foghorn as it comes into dock’? Or is it simply ‘a wounded raccoon’?

Well, I think we’ll get back to the source of those alarming noises later. Let’s not beat about the bush here, readers: in an attempt to cling onto my current gainful employment, I have agreed to take on the running of the weekly film club, but rather to my disappointment some of my favourite films of recent years (Monsters, The Guard) have been met with a response varying from indifference to downright hatred. I have thus been obliged to break out some rather more mainstream, populist fare, and to be perfectly honest I am wondering if the extravagant remuneration is worth the pain of watching some of these films. On the other hand, these are the sorts of films I never usually write about so there is perhaps an opportunity here to broaden the blog a bit. In short: Mamma Mia! – if I have to watch the damn thing, then you’re going to have to read about it (actually, you don’t have to).

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Anyway, Phyllida Lloyd’s film came out in 2008 and has made over $600 million at the box office. (Yes, civilisation officially collapsed several years ago, and I’ll bet you didn’t even notice.) It is, as if you needed telling, practically the index case when it comes to the modern phenomenon of the ‘jukebox musical’, where a selection of hits from a well-known artist or group are strung together by a frankly dodgy narrative.

Mamma Mia! is almost entirely set on a remote Greek island, which plays host to a crumbling hotel run by Meryl Streep, with the help of her almost painfully perky daughter Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried is getting married to Dominic Cooper, but as various women intent on chewing the scenery and pratfalling descend on the place for the wedding (most prominently Julie Walters and Christine Baranski), the bride is not happy. She does not yet know the identity of her father, due to her mother’s (ahem) amatorial generosity around the time of her conception. However she has managed to narrow down the potential candidates to Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth, and secretly invited them all as well. Naturally, the scene is set for…

…well, mainly some sentimental and very broad comedy drama, if I’m perfectly honest, punctuated with frequent dips into the back catalogue of the legendary Swedish pop titans. Whatever your opinion of the performances and dialogue in this film, you have to grant the writers some credit for coming up with a plot which crams in quite so many well-known ABBA hits without seeming utterly contrived. There’s definitely some sort of crossword-puzzle solving, Sudoku-completing mentality at work here.

On the other hand, they don’t manage to squeeze in Fernando or Knowing Me Knowing You, let alone The Day Before You Came, which has to count against them, right? Plus there’s a definite cheat involved in only including Waterloo as a non-plot-related encore. In the places of these songs come some rather lesser known tunes like Our Last Summer and When All Is Said and Done, which certainly don’t feature on ABBA Gold (nor indeed ABBA Gold For The Ukulele).

I suppose even these lesser works are solid enough, but the last one in particular is difficult to fairly assess as it is delivered, if that’s the right word, by Pierce Brosnan, who gives one of the more remarkable performances in recent musical cinema. It is of course Brosnan whose vocal stylings have been likened to a raccoon, a buffalo, and so on, but to be fair listening to him yowl, yelp, and moo his way through songs like SOS and I Do, I Do, I Do is strangely entertaining.

This is just part of a peculiar alchemy going on somewhere in the heart of this film. On paper the plot is ludicrous, schmaltzy nonsense, and the general tone of the thing is so frothy and excitable it should really give the discerning viewer a headache. Watching it for the first time I got the rather grim sensation that all of the actors were having much more fun than I was: it’s a bit like arriving late at a party and finding yourself five or six drinks behind everyone else.

And yet, and yet… there are those songs. My God, Benny and Bjorn can write a great tune. Actually, they can write great tunes by the bucketful, all replete with perfectly-honed hooks, surging choruses, and just the right level of grown-up realism and melancholy about them. These songs are like adamantium, not even Pierce Brosnan can seriously damage them. Admittedly, the role-reversal version of Does Your Mother Know emasculates the song, and Streep’s histrionic version of The Winner Takes It All is absurd, but the film’s version of Lay All Your Love On Me captures the song’s mixture of near-spiritual intensity and implicit sexual frenzy perfectly.

All things considered, I would definitely rather listen to two or three ABBA albums back-to-back than watch Mamma Mia! again, because it really does have that air of being an out-of-control middle-aged hen party about it, and Dr K’s description of it as being close to A-list stars performing ‘drunken karaoke’ is, as usual, close to being spot on. But somehow it is impossible to thoroughly object to or even genuinely dislike this film. If nothing it is a testament to the power of… well one thing ABBA’s music isn’t, is cheap. I don’t really think this is the showcase ABBA really deserves, but in its own way the film does an outstanding job of showing just how good their songs are.

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Normal service appears to have been resumed at the premises of the company that sends me my rented DVDs: still no sign of Tiptoes, but another Woody Allen movie turned up (the third in the space of two months, for anyone keeping score). Not that I’m complaining; I wouldn’t be signing up to watch these movies if I didn’t like Allen a lot, I just didn’t expect to get them all in a lump (as it were).

This time around the movie they sent was Manhattan, from 1979, one of Allen’s most successful and acclaimed films. The ironic thing about this is that Allen apparently hated the movie when he finished editing it together – one senses that he has a difficult relationship with most of his old work, come to that – and went to the studio, trying to persuade them to let him junk it and make another movie for free to replace it.

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It would interesting to visit the parallel dimension where Manhattan was indeed junked and Woody Allen got to make that mysterious other film instead, because it seems to me that Manhattan is one of the two or three absolutely key films in Allen’s career. Together with Annie Hall, it marks the point of transition between the unrepentantly broad comedy of the Early, Funny films and the more ambitious and harder to categorise work he spent most of the 1980s making. Or, to put it another way, in terms of all those multi-stranded comedy-dramas about the difficult personal lives and relationships of affluent metropolitan types, Manhattan is the Ur-text, recognisably the original of the species.

What makes it somewhat distinctive in narrative terms is that it is focussed on one character, rather than bobbing back and forth between several. Allen plays Isaac, a somewhat-harassed TV comedy writer with a bevy of ex-wives to support and a much younger girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway). She is very much in love with him; he seems guarded and diffident. When he meets a close friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton) there is an obvious chemistry between them, and their relationship slowly develops. He quits his job and attempts to write a novel. Meanwhile one of his ex-wives (Meryl Streep) is writing a warts-and-all account of their failed relationship and divorce, much to his horror.

And so on, and so on, essentially. It seems to me Woody Allen’s ability to pull together a satisfying narrative out of events which are basically the stuff of potboilers and soap operas is much underrated. If I’m honest, Manhattan struggles a bit in the ending department, as it’s a little unclear what the director is trying to say and what response he is looking to evoke from the audience, but on the whole this is a very successful and engaging film, driven along by a great performance from Allen himself and a script bristling with the one-liners you’d expect. That said, the drama has a harder edge to it than you might expect – this genuinely is a comedy-drama, arguably Allen’s first.

Of course, this being a Woody Allen movie where the director stars as a thinly disguised analogue of himself, the temptation to scour it for clues about his real life relationships and attitudes is almost irresistible. Diane Keaton plays a harder, less obviously troubled character than Annie Hall, but there are still obvious parallels between the two. The relationship between Allen and Hemingway was allegedly based on one he had with Stacey Nelkin. The golden thread of most of the early Allen movies – the apparently unironic presentation of Allen as a neurotic nebbish, who nevertheless possesses uncanny ladykilling powers and astonishing sexual prowess – continues, of course. To be honest, given how Allen’s private life eventually turned out, the fact that he’s quite happy to depict himself here engaging in an affair with a besotted 17-year-old (Allen himself was 43 when the movie came out) is, er, fascinating.

If the story takes place firmly in Allen territory, the look of Manhattan is rather different. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, and New York looks lovely throughout. Usually I think that doing a movie in black and white just to give it a bit of art-house gravitas is a sure-fire sign that pretentiousness is afoot, but Manhattan looks so beautiful that I’ll cut it some slack. It also gives the film some of the ‘classic’ quality which I suspect Allen was aiming for when he took this option.

With a body of work as large and varied as Woody Allen’s, you’re on slippery ground if you even start talking in terms of his best film. Even so, I don’t think Manhattan is quite there, for all that it’s better than all the variations on the same theme that Allen has been cranking out on-and-off ever since. It’s intelligently written, solidly performed, and terrifically well-filmed – and yet for me it doesn’t have quite the heart or warmth of some of his other movies. Still a class act, though.

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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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