Saturday, January 21, 2012

Iron Depletion

The recently-departed (and much-lamented) Christopher Hitchens said that the worst sin for a writer was to be boring. By this standard I fear I'm a sinner of the first water, and there is hardly a more egregious observation I could make than to say that Meryl Streep is a goddess. But sometimes the truth hurts, and there's just no getting around the fact that the woman can do anything. She has played a huge range of characters over her long career, and has hit more out-of-the-park homers than anyone has a right to. And beyond critical success, her characters are invariably a great treat for the film lover. What a list: the deliciously evil Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada; her magnificence as Karen Blixen in Out Of Africa (one of my favorite films); her turn as Julia Child in Julie and Julia (would that the whole film were about her); Doubt, Silkwood, Kramer vs. Kramer. Like a musical virtuoso, it's worth the price of admission just to see her work.

It's especially fun to see her tackle accents (at which many actors recoil, or should), and yet to see her interviewed you'd never guess she has such a facility. She has a certain statuesque beauty but it's mingled with a kind of everywoman aspect, and she seems remarkably down-to-earth; if there's a diva in there, it's well-hidden. Her chief ambition just seems to be to have fun on the set (in interviews she cannot tell a story without making sound effects and laughing most endearingly at her own jokes).

The role of Margaret Thatcher is one for which Streep seems perfectly suited. Larger than life, brimming with conviction and charm, yet possessed of a rather uncompromising, even casually unfeeling, underpinning; the former Prime Minister is the perfect kind of role for Streep to sink her teeth into. Thatcher remains a controversial figure, and I confess I'm not necessarily predisposed to enjoy any biopic about her, mostly because I cannot look forward to two hours' immersion in these survival-of-the-fittest politics where the common workers are smashed underfoot and their due given to the "fittest" who were never so bad off to begin with. I don't know enough of history to determine whether this "tough love" approach was really necessary or effective, but there is no dearth of footage showing folks getting ruined by these policies. (Come to think of it, there are a few parallels to our modern times. I guess there really are just so many stories in life.)

Having seen Phylidda Lloyd's new film The Iron Lady, I don't think my reservations were unfounded; there's no telling Mrs. Thatcher's story without letting her espouse her politics (whether we want to hear them or not--though there will be those for whom they resonate). But I'm also reminded that I should not underestimate the Goddess Streep to deliver a deeply moving and richly satisfying portrayal regardless of the source material.  Not that Margaret Thatcher's story is not fascinating. From modest beginnings, she rose through the rough-and-tumble, male world of British politics to improbably become the leader of the ruling Conservative party, and thus the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the country's first woman to hold the title. And from that position of power she undertook a bold--you could say brutal--reordering of society, crushing unions and privatizing a number of key industries in England, which made her extraordinarily unpopular, at least for a time.

And yet this is not exactly the storyline of Lloyd's film. We revisit these events, certainly, but in the context of an aged and feeble Lady Thatcher in her waning days reliving in memory the key events of her life. Her husband, Dennis Thatcher, is long since dead and one of her two children lives half a world away. She has a staff and a daughter that look after her, but dementia is setting in and hers is a life characterized by all that is behind her. True, this is the inevitable condition of the aging process, especially for one who has lived a rich and eventful life; all of us will reach this point, and the mighty have further to fall. But it seems questionable to put so much of the great lady's decline on the screen as though the loss of her faculties were as interesting as her accomplishments when still hale and hearty. I've heard Meryl Streep defending this part of the story as the simple truth of Thatcher's life, and it's true so far as it goes. But surely the decline and death that awaits every one of us is not what makes Thatcher's story an interesting one (even if there will be plenty who are happy to see her too hobbled to harm any more people). Lloyd's approach is not disrespectful, I'd say; it's just pointless to devote so much screen time to what makes her exactly like every other person.

Having said that, I totally see why Streep was itching to play the role. She gets to age about 40 years on screen and to be a person (the aged Thatcher) who is most challenging to play. And we can see her revel in all the little details that bring the character to life, for her and for us. It's another grand slam for Streep.

It strikes me now that maybe the reason Director Lloyd had focused so much on Lady Thatcher's decline is to bring some variety in what might otherwise come off as her monolithic persona. There's strength and eloquence and resolve and an unwillingness to compromise in abundance here, but it might be a bit cloying to watch two-plus hours of that without a little relief. But the character Streep gives us is so nuanced and so fully human that we'd be sucked in no matter the subject. The film covers Thatcher's whole life, but focuses mostly on her time in politics (and her final days). For the younger scenes the young British actress Alexandra Roach portrays her, and Streep covers the rest, ranging age-wise from mid-30s or 40 to the end. I disliked this technique of using two actors to play a single character in John Madden's film The Debt, but for whatever reason found it unobjectionable here. Ms. Roach quite holds her own, though the meatiest stuff is naturally reserved for Streep. And she is quite reason enough to see the film. It's a chance to see our greatest living film actress doing a brilliant, larger-than-life role whatever you may think of the subject.

Grade: B


dbackdad said...

Nice review. I had heard several reviews on the podcasts that I listen to. All were effusive in praise of Streep, but dubious on the movie itself.

Streep is enough of a reason for me to see the movie. It's easy enough to say that she is the best actress (or actor) of our generation, but it would not be hyperbole to say that she is, quite simply, the best actress ever.

wunelle said...

I agree. I've only seen so much, of course, but she's kind of in a league of her own in my experience.

Let me know if you see it and what you thought!

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I also love Streep and look forward to seeing this film. My favorite role of hers is still "Sophie's Choice," and as for "The Debt," I really enjoyed that movie and wasn't too distracted by two actors playing the same part, once I figured out the younger actor was Jessica Chastain who I had just seen in "The Help." I was astounded at the physical differences in those two roles and didn't recognize her at first.

wunelle said...

Jessica Chastain is on my List, though I have to hate her a little for the difficulty she expressed in putting a few pounds on for The Help--and the ease with which she shed it at film's end. Would that I could shed so easily. I loved The Help, and thought the more voluptuous Chastain a complete knockout.