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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Movies of the Week... The Iron Lady and The Artist

It's rare that there is more than one movie in theatres that I am excited about.  It's actually rare when there's even one.  But, the last few weeks have found me staring at the silver screen on several occasions.  In fact, twice in one day!

First, let's start with  The Iron Lady, another triumph for Meryl Streep.  I am usually somewhat ambivalent about Streep.  For example, when I heard that she was playing Julia Child some years ago, I couldn't imagine a less likely choice.  Then, when I saw her in the role, I couldn't believe that I wasn't watching Julia herself, bounding across the screen.  The same is true of Streep's Margaret Thatcher.  From the instant the film began, I was watching Thatcher herself.  Perhaps most remarkable was the transformation of the powerful Thatcher of the 1980's to the more complicated part of a woman who slides in and out of a mild dementia, while still able to draw together all of her marvelously powerful faculties to converse on the issues of the day.  All the time, Streep manages to capture every familiar look and movement of the real Iron Lady.  It's a subtle performance, because it doesn't rely on any one factor.  It's not just the voice or the gestures, the makeup or wardrobe, it's everything together.  It stands in stark contrast to Helen Mirren's much lauded portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher's close contemporary.  While Mirren received accolades for her stony-faced, stiff-upper lipped Elizabeth, few who have studied that woman's life recognized the humorless and one-dimensional monarch pictured on screen.

The Iron Lady herself...  Holding the flowers I gave
to her on her birthday in Vancouver, BC.
With all of the remarkable achievements in terms of appearance and characterization, it might be easy to overlook the script itself. While Meryl Streep becomes Margaret Thatcher, it's the writing that really makes the film come together.  Whether you agree with Thatcher's politics or not, you will find yourself admiring her utter and genuine devotion to the principles she holds, as well as her courage and willingness to embrace big ideas.  What's even better is the opportunity to see something of the woman behind the very public face.  At times difficult and willful, and then frightened and dependent, it is useful to be reminded that even public figures, so often stripped of their humanity and seen only as caricatures, are as complex and torn as the rest of us.  Thatcher's duality as a powerful public woman and, at times, wife and mother trying to figure out how to get breakfast together, is insightful.  It also reminds us that, again in spite of political viewpoint, there are people in the world with a remarkable and unusual talent for leadership.

The second "film of the week" couldn't be more different.  The Artist is, in a word, charming.  The story of a once powerful silent film star dealing with the decline of his medium and the rise of one that he can't compete in isn't all that unusual.  Think of John Barrymore in Dinner at Eight.  What is intriguing is that, in our day and age of big screen blockbusters with predictably cast superstars, The Artist contains none of this.  What it relies on is a story that is accessible and able to capture an audience for almost two hours with no audible dialogue and only minimal "subtitles".  It's also dependent of fabulous music and expressive, not mawkish, performances by likable and engaging actors.  It should be mentioned that Hollywood itself had a starring role in the film.  Somehow, The Artist was able to capture the look and feel of the 1920's film capital believably.

The Artist could have easily become a parody of the silent film era, a sort of Singin' In the Rain for the 21st century.  Instead, it's as if the audience is transported to the age itself where the lack of dialog and color is normal and expected.   In truth, you don't even miss it.  For a film about the 1920's, it also seems remarkably current.  It's not because any of our modern mores are brought into play in this period piece, rather it's because they are not.  The creators of The Artist don't pander to the audience with sly asides or clever winks as if to say, "Isn't this cute?!  A silent film!"  They take their chosen style of film and, with complete confidence, make the most of both the advantages and disadvantages it provides.  I, for one, left the theatre wondering why they don't make more films like this.  For one hundred minutes it served as a total escape from the outside world, and a relaxing and entertaining one at that. 

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