Sunday, December 11, 2011

Beginners and The Iron Lady

by Rick Hamilton

The process of reminiscing is a tricky thing to capture on film.  So often, stories told in flashback use a basic technique of starting on the subject and then fading/dissolving/panning to the past, where recollections are visualized with great detail in long sequences. But that’s not really how memories work. They can be muddied, short snippets or simply images. They are frequently incorrect and often selective. Two films this year made excellent use of memory of film: Beginners and The Iron Lady.
Beginners’ main plotline is very reminiscent of the Before Sunrise/Sunset films.  Graphic designer Oliver (Euan McGregor) and French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent) meet and begin an intense relationship, based mostly on long, intense conversations. But Oliver is haunted by the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who in his 70s, after the death of Oliver’s mother, came out to his son. “I don’t want to be theoretically gay,” he tells Oliver, “I want to do something about it.”  So, in the final years of his life, while being plagued with cancer, Hal begins his life anew, with a passion that didn’t exist the first time around.

The film’s narrative of the romance between Oliver and Anna continues on a predominantly linear structure, while intercut with scenes from the past and a dry, yet humorous, voice-over by McGregor. Scenes from Oliver’s childhood with his mother are darkly lit, as if still dusty from being tucked away long ago and only being brought to the surface now to be inspected with new information: not only was his father gay, but his mother knew from the beginning. Perhaps this is the reason Oliver has never had a successful relationship—the one he tries to emulate never truly existed in the first place.
It’s the scenes with the father that really drive the film. Oliver frequently watches in an almost envy at the life his father now has, even up to his final days.  But these memories are often in need of correction in Oliver’s mind. “I always remember him wearing a purple sweater when he told me this, but actually, he wore a robe.” Plummer lights up the screen. On top of his excellent performance, he’s the only truly happy character in the film, which may be why he’s missed whenever he’s not around. It’s not the rest of the cast is lacking in any way, but the melancholia does tend to overpower much of the rest of the film.

Meryl Streep fans have been long awaiting the arrival of The Iron Lady; she was practically an Oscar contender from the moment it was announced she’d be portraying Margaret Thatcher in the new biopic.  Fear not.  While the Brits may still be aghast that the former Prime Minister is being played by an American, the combination of actress and role is brilliant.

It is one of the first films where Streep completely disappears into a role, thanks partly to excellent make-up from J. Roy Helland.  Despite her incredible talent, or indeed partly because of it, it is rare in most movies not to be conscious that you are watching her onscreen—whether or not you buy into the characters she portrays. However, in The Iron Lady, especially in the beginning scenes, it is quite simply Mrs. Thatcher on the screen.  We might be surprised by how old and doddering she has become, but we are not aware at all of Ms. Streep. It is not until later in the film, during the middle-aged politician’s years that we catch peeks at the actress and her techniques. The looks and mannerisms are all distinctly Thatcher’s, but the performance becomes how well Streep is portraying the Prime Minister without devolving into a simple impersonation; which is indeed quite admirable. Perhaps, though, this is more the fault of sophomoric director Phyllida Lloyd, who is not yet able to guide her star in a way that these cracks do not show.

However, Lloyd’s use of memory in film is exceptional. The film starts in modern day, the former PM out to grab a pint of milk. There is certainly no grandeur of these opening scenes as she waits in line, her hair wrapped in a simple scarf, or eats a soft boiled egg at the breakfast table. Soon, the memories start flooding in, triggered by a name, a picture, a siren or event. Sometimes, they come in brief glimpses: one hand taking another, her late husband Denis getting ready for bed. Others are full scenes—but frequently with a slight exaggeration: voices have an amplified echo to them; visuals may be slightly distorted, either slowed down or with unusual camera angles; at times a silhouette of the elder Mrs. Thatcher, deep in thought, overlays the screen.

This theatricality, however, doesn’t always service the film.  An almost choreographed scene of her cabinet “turning their backs” on her feels out of place. A shot of the PM walking through Parliament, surrounded by her supporters, begs to be remembered for when she will inevitably walk the halls alone.

Abi Morgan’s screenplay seems to be a relatively unbiased portrayal of her life—neither sugar-coated nor a hatchet job. In Thatcher’s long tenure as Prime Minister, the script focuses mostly on her dealings with the labor strikes, reestablishing the British economy, the IRA and the Falklands War. In the present day, however, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are portraying a type of hallucinatory dementia, or whether they believe Mrs. Thatcher is so preoccupied by her past that she has trouble letting it go.

In the end, the film is a feast for eyes and ears, even the mind, but the heart is completely uninvolved. Meryl Streep’s performance is fantastic and shouldn’t be missed and I have respect for Ms. Lloyd for trying to make something more than the standard format biopic. Mrs. Thatcher was both reviled and revered at different points in her life, perhaps in an effort to find the middle ground, the film winds up being completely neutral.

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