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Posts Tagged ‘Meryl Streep’

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 April 10th 2003:

[Another attempt at smart-arsery. I wish I could say it was out-of-character. Sorry everyone. Don’t worry about all the h2g2 in-jokes and just roll with it.]

Simulated dust motes danced in simulated sunlight as Shazz made yet another of her occasional attempts to clear up the mess in the H2G2 Post Office. I’m not surprised this is a virtual environment, she thought, it’s virtually uninhabitable for one thing.

Thrusting another half-dozen empty doughnut cartons into an already overflowing bin she paused to light her pipe. Rich, aromatic green fumes added to the already murky office atmosphere and a languid moment was only disturbed by a salvo of liquid barking noises as Shazz nearly coughed up a lung.

The cleaning attempt temporarily put on hold Shazz sat down behind her ink-stained desk and mused about the next edition. All the usual suspects, she thought, although as usual one member of the team was shockingly behind deadline, delaying her, inconveniencing the Towers, and letting down the other contributors. Utterly, reprehensibly irresponsible, Shazz thought with disgust. When I get my hands on –

‘Awix!’ she said, cranking a saintly smile onto her face as a familiar figure shambled in through the virtual door. There was no mistaking the pallid hairless dome, the rolls of fat, or the terrible dress-sense. ‘I was hoping you’d pop in today.’

‘Uh, well, erm,’ Awix responded with a confused smile. He stepped aside to let his slim and lovely girlfriend Lisa follow him into the office. ‘Got the, uhr, stuff if you still need it.’

‘Great. Hi Lisa,’ Shazz smiled. ‘Wow, that dress looks great on you!’

‘Thanks, it’s Italian.’ Lisa and Shazz did that French air-kissing thing – Shazz could tell Awix was watching and thinking about Tatu from the gawping lasciviousness of his expression. ‘So, what have you got for us this week?’

‘Um, right.’ Awix fished about in his pockets. ‘Freshly edited episode of 168, same again for The Edge… oh, and we were thinking about doing another TV review thing.’

That’ll play well with readers from outside the UK, thought Shazz in near-despair. ‘And what about one of your film reviews? That’s the really popular thing you do!’ Though God alone knows why…

‘Oh, yeah, that. Well, you see, I, um…’

‘What Awix is trying to say that is that he feels we’re stuck in a bit of a stylistic rut at the moment,’ Lisa explained. ‘He feels every review kicks off with some generic comments, then we write a synopsis with some cheap and obvious gags in it, then try to make serious critical points for a couple of paragraphs. He wants to try something different.’

‘Oh. Good,’ Shazz said dubiously. ‘So what did you go and see this week?’

Adaptation.,’ Awix said. ‘It’s got that guy out of Con Air in it but he’s got really fat. It’s dead weird.’

‘It comes on like the sound of one man screaming into his own navel,’ Lisa revealed. ‘It does seem like an incredibly self-indulgent film. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, has written himself into his own screenplay as the main character. He was supposed to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief but he’s written a film about how he impossible he actually found doing that. And God knows how or why, but the studio made it.’

‘Wasn’t this the one with a few Oscar nominations?’ Shazz enquired helpfully.

‘Uh, yeah. The fat guy, and the guy what wrote it, and wossname Cooper,’ Awix said cheerily. ‘Only one of them won though. The thing is that most of the characters are, like, real people, but made-up versions of themselves.’

‘Fancy that,’ Shazz sighed. ‘It sounds a bit self-reflexive. You know, in-jokey?’ – this last added to try and dispel Awix’s look of blank incomprehension.

‘Oh, yeah, that,’ Awix said. ‘I didn’t get all the jokes, you’d need some kind of brochure to explain it to you, probably. Well, I didn’t, Lisa was there to explain it all to me, weren’t you, chickadee? And the Kaufman guy comes off as really kind of up himself, writing himself as this neurotic geeky guy – God, I despise these self-pitying writers, always putting themselves down and fishing for compliments. He’s given himself this imaginary twin brother, too, played by the same guy out of Con Air.’

‘But to be fair to him, Kaufman makes a reasonable stab at justifying what’s basically a wildly and possibly unnecessarily eccentric and convoluted script,’ Lisa said, smiling fondly at her beloved. ‘Kaufman the character writes the script of the film he appears in, which can get a bit weird. But all the performances are really very strong and it’s a very funny film.’

‘Oh, good,’ Shazz said distractedly. Awix had started poking through the pile of litter she’d just painstakingly assembled, in search of doughnut fragments. Fat chance of that with Greebo about, she thought. ‘So how does the plot work? Is there one?’

‘Well,’ Lisa said, her face becoming more serious. ‘For most of the running time this is a film really without a conventional narrative. Kaufman sets out to write something completely at odds with the traditional screenplay structure, a story where the participants don’t have traditional aims or motivations and without a normal sense of closure. So we get a series of scenes reflecting this, intercut with him worrying about how a script of this type is actually impossible to write. He’s really trying to have his cake and eat it here but it’s enormously entertaining.

‘Then, near the end of the film, he gives in and the movie adopts an almost hyperbolically cliched thriller style, as if to mock his earlier aspirations. The shift in style is brilliantly, subtly achieved – and, come to think of it, what I’ve just said probably counts as a massive spoiler, so I’d better leave it out of the actual review when Awix and I get around to writing it. The whole film is self-indulgent and probably too clever for its own good, but it’s also an extremely witty wail of frustration from a writer, despairing of the tyranny of regular storytelling structure but also giving in and accepting that, in order to work, that kind of structure is normally essential – films need closure, characters need to grow, objectives must be attained.’ Lisa shrugged. ‘It’s as simple as that.’

‘So, to make an analogy, any kind of review, simply because it’s a review, must contain a few solid paragraphs of analysis somewhere down the line?’ Shazz enquired.

‘Yes, that’s about right,’ Lisa agreed.

Awix sighed and put down the bin he’d been rooting through. ‘I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say in the preview of the movie,’ he announced. ‘Y’know, in the new style.’

Review, honey,’ Lisa said with an indulgent smile.

‘Whatever. I thought I’d be, like, punchy and outspoken and maybe give a rating – like three out of five little stars? And some pithy comment like how this kind of clever arty film is all very well once in while but give me something with kung fu and rappers and lapdancing any week. Oh, and then I thought I’d put in a kind of blatant plug-stroke-link for The Vault of Lies-‘

‘I shouldn’t bother, no-one ever reads the back issues,’ Shazz said. ‘What do you want to put as the byline?’

‘The what?’ Awix gawped at her.

‘The bit on the front page saying what the article’s actually about,’ Shazz sighed.

‘How about, “Another brilliant film review by Awix”?’ he said with an artless grin. ‘Or “Awix honours us with his words of wisdom once more.” Or –‘

‘How about, “Awix risks seriously pissing off his editor”?’ Shazz suggested, deadpan.

Awix blinked at her. ‘Erm, well, if that’s what you think is best. It’s only a movie for smart-arses, after all.’

‘Personally I really liked it,’ Lisa said with a shrug. ‘But it’s your column, darling. I know what you mean though – Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant writer and can pull this kind of metatextual conceit off. I shudder to think what would happen if any old amateur hack tried copying his style. One thing’s for sure, it wouldn’t be pretty.’

Shazz shuddered involuntarily. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It absolutely wouldn’t.’

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