The Iron Lady

Director Phyllida Lloyd reunites with her Mamma Mia! star Meryl Streep to recount the life and career of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady is part hagiography and part biopic but it’s all Meryl, all the time.

Streep’s uncannily accurate impersonation of Thatcher is the best thing about the film, which flits through the highlights of the politician’s controversial leadership like a bored reader ruffling through another political autobiography, looking for the glossy wedge of photos. Opening in the present day, we see an elderly, unsteady Baroness Thatcher, buy a pint of milk from a corner shop. She has dementia and returns home to subdued bedlam as her police protection squad and devoted daughter Carol (Olivia Colman, wearing an ill-advised prosthetic nose) wonder where she’d wandered off to.
Chastened and calmed with a G&T, Thatcher stumbles through the house, haunted by the imagined ghost of her late husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), as they share their recollections of her past triumphs and disappointments, political and personal, in a stream of hit-and-miss flashbacks.

The first trip down memory lane brings us all the way back to the beginning, as grocer’s daughter Margaret Roberts (played by Alexandra Roach) is being interviewed as a prospective Conservative candidate for the Dartford constituency. Sat at the end of a table full of local political bigwigs, a nervous Margaret sticks her chin out and defies them to ignore her. One of the guests is businessman Denis (Harry Lloyd), who takes a shine to the rising politician and asks her out to a tea dance. Sometime later, after a failed election bid, he asks her to marry him and they soon form a double act: he works to support their two children while she pursues her career at the polls. Eventually elected to Parliament, one of the very few women in the house, Thatcher quickly makes strides in the Conservative party; becoming Education secretary in 1970.

From the time of her election to Prime Minister nine years later, to her eventual resignation in 1990, director Lloyd and her screenwriter Abi Morgan trace the contours of Thatcher’s political career in broad strokes, relying on news footage to fill in the detail. These montages of familiar footage – bolstered by a quick scene with a pair of edge-sanding political spin doctors – serve to show Thatcher as she was seen by the media, which is not necessarily how she was seen by the British people and undoubtedly not how she saw herself. When the going gets especially tough for her leadership in the early 1980s, with Britain’s manufacturing economy failing, deepening social division and deep-rooted problems such as long term unemployment and an unwieldy public service, Streep’s unquestionable ferocity is tempered by the sensation that there is a lot of this stuff to get through, so Lloyd is going to make it quick.

What saved Thatcher’s skin, in the first instance, was the Falklands War, which Lloyd cannot resist treating as an afternoon with Dr Strangelove with Streep glowering at one end of the table while her generals bluster. The rest of her premiership is treated in the same fashion; the miner’s strike and the Brixton riots dissolve into a blur of fuzzy newsreel clips followed by one of Streep’s trademark imperious stares. It’s a selected highlights reel, with the vicious situation in Northern Ireland at the time barely meriting mention, with the hunger strikes sidelined to a couple of lines of dialogue and a few waved black flags on television. No “out, out, out”.

By the time it comes for Thatcher to step off the political stage, her fall is almost a relief. Lloyd gives tantalising glimpses of the political chicanery that brought her down, as her key ally Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) gradually turns against her while the ambitious Michael Heseltine (an underused Richard E Grant) flicks his cowlick in the background. But the situation is too briefly explained for dramatic satisfaction and the film ends on a long, drawn-out note of treacly sentiment. Through all this, Streep’s Thatcher is alternately tough and single-minded, patronising or unspeakably rude but The Iron Lady only rarely allows her to be all those things at once. Nevertheless, it is the veteran actress’s performance that lifts the film out of the banal.

The Artist

I can’t think of a better way to start the New Year than by seeing Michel Hazanavicius’ charming homage to the early days of cinema, The Artist; an (almost) silent, black and white film that demonstrates such meticulous mastery of the form that it could be mistaken for a rediscovered lost masterpiece.

The film opens in 1927, when lantern-jawed matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is still the top draw at Kinograph Studios. With his slicked-back hair and carefully clipped pencil moustache, the smiling Valentin is, essentially, an avatar for Douglas Fairbanks, playing the dashing, undaunted hero of countless swashbuckling adventures. Adored by the public and cosseted by his profit-minded studio head (John Goodman), Valentin lives in a sprawling mansion, packed with tasteful objets d’art, where his icy wife (Penelope Ann Miller) aims daggers at him across the breakfast table.

The domestic chill doesn’t cramp Valentin’s style and together with his faithful manservant Clifton (James Cromwell) and his irresistibly charming Jack Russell dog, he swings and swaggers his way through the cardboard streets and houseplant jungles of the studio sound-stages, which Hazanavicus recreates in loving detail. When Valentin meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a chorus line hoofer with big dreams, he contrives to give the ingénue her big break, never thinking that she will soon surpass him. The Artist tracks Peppy’s ascent from background extra to leading lady as Valentin, unwilling or unable to make the transition to sound, enters a spiralling decline. He is yesterday’s man, quickly forgotten in the rush to embrace the new technology and collapses into poverty, alcoholism and bitterness, his loyal dog his only remaining fan. But Peppy hasn’t forgotten the man who gave her a start, who helped craft her public image and who she subsequently fell in love with.

There were hundreds of stories like Valentin’s in the early days of Hollywood: stars that glimmered brightly only to burn themselves out. He might have Fairbanks’ natty moustache and a whiff of Rudolph Valentino’s smoulder but his fall from grace most closely matches that of John Gilbert. Remembered now, if at all, for his on-and-off screen love affair with Greta Garbo, Gilbert was billed as “The Great Lover”, but his dashing presence didn’t survive the leap to talkies, hamstrung by a shrill speaking voice. He died in obscurity in 1936, at the age of 38. The film’s greatest trick, and its enduring joy, is that this Hollywood story is itself told as a monochrome silent picture, a movie within a movie complete with arched eyebrows, snappy title cards, Vaseline-smeared close-ups and a constant musical accompaniment.

Borrowing heavily from A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist wears it’s pastiche of influences with a bubbling confidence, bursting with affection for an era of cinema that most audience members will have all but forgotten. The Artist has the starry-eyed soul of a silent film: the characters are irrepressibly debonair, the romance is beguiling, the comedy is fresh and effervescent and the unexpected touches of sadness, when they arrive, add an elegant, piquant savour. The performances are uniformly superb, with Dujardin and Bejo making for an indelible screen couple, bursting with charisma and charm from the moment they first meet right through to a spectacular dance routine that tops the story with an exuberant flourish. These are the first great silent film performances in almost 80 years.

Lovingly rendered and perfectly put together, like Scorsese’s Hugo, Hazanavicius’ film might reignite an interest in silent movies - which represents a quarter of the history of cinema - but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t: The Artist is still a delight.