Due to an extended holiday over Christmas, BTSB at the Movies! has been absent for several months. However that time has allowed this reviewer to see several movies currently in cinemas, so this month we’re going to skip the traditional DVD review and go with two current reviews instead. Enjoy!
The term ‘The Iron Lady’ was first bestowed upon then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher by Russian military journalist Captain Yuri Gavrilov in an article published in the Soviet newspaper Red Star in 1976 – his memorable description came to represent both her character and her overriding political philosophy for the remainder of her career. Based on the extraordinary rise and equally epic fall of the former British Prime Minister, The Iron Lady tells the story of Thatcher’s early life, her entry into politics as a young woman, and her eventual ascent to the very top of Britain’s political establishment during the 1970’s, including the many obstacles she faced in attaining that position as a woman working within an almost exclusively male realm. Told in the form of flashbacks, the now elderly and retired Baroness Thatcher recalls the important milestones achieved throughout a long life, a life that would eventually see her requiring the supervision of nannies whilst living alone, battling dementia.
For many years now it has been generally accepted that Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice) is incapable of giving a bad performance, and this latest starring role in The Iron Lady will only serve to reinforce that belief. Streep is predictably terrific in depicting Thatcher both at the height of her powers, and as the frail, often confused retiree that she is portrayed as here. After having viewed old footage of Thatcher taken throughout her career, Streep appears to have done a remarkable job of mimicking many of Thatcher’s gestures and mannerisms, as well as in capturing her overall presence, and whilst judging accents that are not our own is always a risky business, she certainly seems to have done a fine job of emulating Thatcher’s distinctive voice too. Streep is surrounded by a supporting cast that includes the wonderful Jim Broadbent, (Moulin Rouge! Iris) and Richard E. Grant, (Gosford Park, Corpse Bride), and was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed Streep in the spectacularly successful Mamma Mia!, which stunned Hollywood in 2008 by riding its paltry 52 million dollar budget to world-wide box-office takings of over 600 million – a result that no doubt played a large part in winning Lloyd the directing job here.
In spite of Streep’s performance however, The Iron Lady is ultimately a rather disappointing film. The plot never achieves any great heights, and as it progresses it often feels as though it is merely ticking off a list of achievements on Thatcher’s resumé – an unquestionably remarkable life is reduced to a series of clunky observations, related without any great perception or insight into the woman herself. The flashback strategy as a means of cinematic storytelling is by now terribly clichéd, and so the audience is here offered nothing interesting or new. A talented supporting cast is given too little screen time and ultimately wasted as little more than window-dressing for Streep – in particular Jim Broadbent as Maggie’s husband Denis Thatcher is both under-used and mis-directed, his few memorable moments becoming lost within a performance made to appear clownish and annoying rather than sympathetic. The Iron Lady also suffers from what was undoubtedly an anaemic budget, with the larger set pieces intended to depict several Conservative Party conferences, as well as various debates within the House of Commons, appearing rather amateurish on screen, and failing to capture any of the tension or excitement that the real events so often convey on television.
Putting aside the fact that it is ultimately a fairly uninteresting story, I would say that The Iron Lady is still worth seeing for Streep’s performance alone, but wait until it comes out on DVD. There is really nothing especially epic or cinematic about The Iron Lady that will be lost in the transfer from the big screen to your T.V screen, and you’ll still get to appreciate one of the great performances of 2011 whilst saving yourself a few bucks in the process.
BTSB’s Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
In Director Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, we have, as with The Iron Lady, a biopic of one of the most controversial yet iconic figures of the twentieth century. After completing a law degree at George Washington University, J. Edgar Hoover was hired by the Justice Department where he was quickly appointed to lead the newly-formed General Intelligence Division. From there he rose through the ranks to become the director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. Renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, Hoover remained its Director until his death in 1972, taking the F.B.I from a little respected and largely unknown entity, to become the premier domestic law enforcement agency within the United States, along the way championing many initiatives that have now become cornerstones of law enforcement strategy worldwide, such as the creation of a fingerprint database, as well as the funding of scientific laboratories devoted to the thorough and systematic analysis of evidence. However he would also ultimately come to be accused of a number of serious offenses, including the extortion of many politicians and prominent public figures, as well as for having illegally obtained evidence.
An impressive cast is lead by Leonardo Di Caprio (The Departed, Inception) as the title character, whilst Armie Hammer (Blackout, The Social Network) is, given his status as a relative unknown in Hollywood, perhaps surprisingly cast in the important role of Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right-hand-man and oft-rumoured lover. Judy Dench (Shakespeare in Love, Notes on a Scandal) plays Anna Marie Hoover, J.Edgar’s imposing mother, whilst Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams) rounds out the principal cast as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal and long-serving personal secretary. The one and only Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) directs, whilst the screenplay was written by Dustin Lance Black, Academy Award winning writer of Milk.
Given the pedigree of its director, writer and cast, J.Edgar unfortunately proves to be a very flawed and surprisingly boring film. In real life Hoover threatened and butted heads with some of the most powerful men of the twentieth century, yet many of these scenes are only hinted at without ever being depicted on screen. Even worse, one of the few such occasions that is shown – a potentially explosive meeting between Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy – contains so little tension that it may as well have been cut out of the film altogether. Without glossing over his many immoral and often probably illegal actions – not to mention his numerous, serious character flaws – Eastwood tries to portray Hoover as a visionary in the field of law enforcement, and with some success. However Hoover is such a deeply unsympathetic character that the film really needed to have a far greater sense of dramatic urgency in order to maintain the audience’s interest, and that urgency simply isn’t there. What we get instead is a long (137 minutes) and rather bland tale of a man who spends most of his time in his office concocting evil schemes, or relating the obviously and deliberately biased account of his career to a series of increasingly disinterested biographers, a method of storytelling that is perhaps even more unoriginal than that employed in The Iron Lady. Unsurprisingly, this does not make for compelling viewing.
Perhaps worst of all however, in stark contrast to The Iron Lady, in which the long life of Margaret Thatcher is portrayed by several different actors suited to her age at the time represented, the three leading roles in J.Edgar are portrayed across a span of more than four decades by the same actors – Leonardo Di Caprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts, who are all aged on screen through the use of make-up and prosthetics – and it doesn’t work. Rather than assisting the audience to lose themselves in the story, I was instead provided with a constant reminder of the fact that I was watching Leonardo Di Caprio, Naomi Watts and the dude who played the Winklevoss twins covered in a ton of make-up and rubber. All three are fine when portraying their characters at a younger age – in fact Armie Hammer as the young Tolson is perhaps the best thing about the whole movie. However, neither Di Caprio nor Hammer are convincing in their depiction of the frailty of movement associated with old age, whilst Watts is not seen often enough to be able to make a lasting impression one way or the other. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn here is that the film would have been far better served by just having the elderly Hoover, Tolson and Gandy played by actors that were more suited to their age at that time.
As a result, J.Edgar is not a film worth going to see. The story lacks dramatic interest and the performances are simply not that memorable – a fact that is as much the fault of the script and direction as it is the actors, who are rarely given very much to work with. Which is a shame, since a life such as that of Hoover is surely capable of being depicted in a far more interesting and memorable way. If you’re especially interested in Hoover or the evolution of the F.B.I, perhaps grab this once it comes out on DVD. Otherwise, J.Edgar is a movie that you can probably live without seeing.
BTSB’s Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆