Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 30, 2011 8:20 pm 
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So-so biopic, stunning Streep shtick

An old lady (Maryl Streep, as the aging Margaret Thatcher) totters around her large London apartment interacting with a very large and real-seeming hallucination: her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, who did similar duty a decade ago in Richard Eyre's Iris). She goes in and out of lucidity, seeming only partly aware she hasn't been Prime Minister of England for many years. Periodically assistants and her daughter come round offering help in clearing out things and sending her to see her doctor. She’s clearly losing her mind. She's trying to throw out Denis' clothes and shoes, but with him constantly reappearing to her as if in flesh and blood, it's a tough project.

The framing device has great, alas largely wasted, possibilities. It's still far more interesting than J.Edgar's pretext of dictating an unpublished autobiography. Moreover the brilliant Streep provides a better impersonation than Leonardo DiCaprio’s of the aging Hoover and with less glaringly artificial makeup. The Iron Lady certainly has a verve Clint Eastwood’s clunky biopic lacks, and though the film's too soft and too incomplete to provide a worthwhile study of its subject, Streep's tour-de-force mimicry (both of her subject and of old age) makes the movie a decent watch. Streep’s impersonation of Thatcher from forty-ish to early Alzheimer’s not only blows away Leonardo DiCaprio’s of Hoover but is one of her most impressive such tuns in a career rich in them, something more challenging and -- mostly -- more serious than her turn as the American food maven Julia Child.

Unfortunately this is, as the Guardian writer Xan Brooks put it, "a movie that gives us Thatcher without Thatcherism" -- with the complexities of the politics reduced to enunciated slogans and Thatcher’s party leadership seen as little more than emotional bullying. It's left foggy how Thatcher held onto the leadership so long as well as what the opposition's critique sounded like. Thatcher hardly deserves comparison as a thinker to Freud and Jung, but the thinking here has the same "For Dummies" quality as Cronenberg's (also too breezy) A Dangerous Method.

What we’re left with is a series of colorful scenes with no unifying thread other than Thatcher’s power and Streep's performance. The actress is a little funnier than she should be but pretty serious, especially when she portrays the once bullying old lady struggling to maintain dignity as her mind falters and her memories encroach. But one has to wonder about this frame-tale conception: if MT is going batty, should we trust her memory in all these flashbacks?

The Iron Lady's storytelling manner is prone to glibness, as evidenced in the short scene when a few top Conservative Party advisers prepare Thatcher to become party leader and PM, which seems to consist of deepening the voice, losing the hat, a coiffure that's grander and bigger, and a debate over whether to stop wearing her pearls. No, she won't lose the pearls, she says. They were a present from Denis at a key moment and continuing to wear them is "non-negotiable."

A glaring weakness: when the movie goes from the young Margaret (the wide-eyed Alexandra Roach) to 14 years later when she is a middle-aged lady about to be the major figure in British politics, we jump from the cute young Denis (Harry Lloyd of "Game of Thrones") to an old-man Denis (Broadbent), with no effort to forge a transitional middle-aged one.

What’s wasted: the opportunity to expand the frame story of a once-great leader losing her mind and in denial about it into something of larger, perhaps even tragic, at least seriously pathetic, dimensions. The breezy whistle-stop flashback portrait never really allows this fascinating and troubling idea of crumbling greatness to flower as it might; and yet the political history part remains shallow too.

Harvey Weinstein bought this film for US distribution along with My Week with Marilyn and The Artist. Strong performances here, and engaging material: yet in these purchases Harvey has not snared another art house item to capture the American mainstream (and the Oscars) like last year's A King's Speech. The latter focuses on key moments of its subject's life, as does the even better Stephen Frears-Peter Morgan collaboration, The Queen. The deeper portrayal of events and personalities in The Queen transforms Helen Mirren's Elizabeth II into a true portrayyal and not a shtick. The focus on its royal protagonist's struggle with stammering makes A King's Speech more involving. The Iron Lady will please less informed observers -- the American audience, for instance. Its fundamentally easygoing portrait can only enrage Britishers of the left who still harbor fresh memories of Thatcher's union-bashing and privatizations that undermined the social and economic fabric of the UK. Yet the movie's fanciful and superficial depiction displeases Thatcher fans as well. As for those who crave a searching study of the devastating shift in ideology in the English-speaking world heralded by the twin reigns of Thatcher and Reagan, they will be left hungry by this picture, just as the triumph of their neoliberal capitalism has left the 99% hungrier.

Phyllida Lloyd previously directed Streep in the musical Mamma Mia -- obviously a relatively undemanding role, though Streep likes to say her tuneful ear helps her do her voices and accents. The writer is Abi Morgan. Ms. Morgan also wrote the screenplay for Shame, Steve McQueen's currently released portrait (starring Michael Fassbender) of a New York sex addict. This is a fact that can only feed the Thatcher family's outspoken distaste for The Iron Lady.

The Iron Lady was previewed in the Guardian in November 2011. Its UK release day is January 6, 2012; US wide release, January 13, limited, December 30, 2011.

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