Love Meryl, miss Margaret

Streep shines in The Iron Lady. Plus: Polanski makes a mess of Carnage.

As a jaded old film fan, I expect Meryl Streep to deliver the acting goods every time she appears on screen. When I heard she would be throwing on pancake makeup, pearls and a British accent to play ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, I assumed Streep would nail her character — and she does. What I didn’t expect was how completely she would morph into Thatcher. This isn’t acting; it’s channeling.

The first time she appears on screen — as an elderly Thatcher buying milk at the grocery — I thought it actually was Thatcher for a moment. I had to strain my eyes to spot the performer underneath the costume and makeup. But Streep’s take on Thatcher isn’t just an impersonation, and the actress works hard to convey the human being beneath the elderly visage and failing health. It’s a shame the movie around Streep doesn’t live up to her performance.

The Iron Lady is a biopic that doesn’t seem all that interested in its main subject. Oh sure, we get brief glimpses of the young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) tending to her dad’s grocery store and meeting her husband Denis (played as a young man by Harry Lloyd) before running for office, but there is no attempt to make any more than a superficial connection between her early life and her eventual success. We get that Thatcher wasn’t too keen on sexism (shocker), but beyond that I’m not sure the film imparts anything of note about what makes the lady tick.

Told in flashbacks, the film takes a “greatest hits” tour through Thatcher’s rise to power in the 1970s, and her dealings with labor unrest and economic problems as prime minister in the 1980s, but it never lingers on any one moment long enough to allow it depth. This is a hit-and-run biography where events whiz by (Strikes! Riots! The Fall of the Berlin Wall!), yet we gain no deeper understanding of the main subject. If anything, The Iron Lady turns Thatcher into something of a simpleton, when in real life she was anything but.

The film's fundamental error is one of execution. In setting a large chunk of the film after Thatcher is elderly and suffering from dementia, director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia) has focused on the least interesting (to my mind, at least) aspect of Thatcher’s life. To make matters worse, the film saddles us, Beautiful Mind-style, with Denis as an old man (really Thatcher’s hallucination, well played by Jim Broadbent), who becomes more and more annoying as the film goes on. Did we need to spend this much screen time on what’s really a minor character?

I’m recommending The Iron Lady entirely on the strength of Streep’s performance, which is excellent and will appeal to fans of great acting. That said, it’s a problem when you leave a film thinking more about the actor than about the person she was pretending to be. Meryl is magnificent, but the verdict is still out on Mrs. Thatcher.

I loved Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, and hoped it was the start of a late career renaissance. After seeing the director’s latest, Carnage, I’m worried that Ghost Writer was more a last gasp of glory than a taste of what’s to come.

Based on the noted stage play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the film takes place almost entirely in the apartment of a liberal, PC married couple (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) as they try to reach an understanding with the upper-crusty parents (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) of a boy who hit their kid in the face with a stick. The four adults start off respectful and cautious not to offend, but it’s not long before the meeting (largely centered on Scotch and vomit, though not in that order) strips them of social graces until all that’s left is snarling self-interest and contempt for one’s fellow man.

I’ve heard this material works great as a play (I haven’t seen it), but as a movie Carnage feels rushed and silly. At less than 80 minutes, the characters are forced to run a gamut of emotions that is simply not credible. (Foster, in particular, becomes unhinged and hysterical way too quickly.) To make matters worse, Polanski plays up the claustrophobia of the situation, which does nothing but remind the viewer that this used to be a play. Yes, some of the dialogue sparkles and the performers have their moments (especially Waltz), but Carnage never pulls itself together into something worthwhile.

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