Monday, January 30, 2012

Tyranny and Mutation

A weekend's viewing of both J Edgar - Clint Eastwood's biopic of the FBI's founder, and The Iron Lady - Phyllida Lloyd's look at Grantham's most famous daughter. The link? Two somewhat sympathetic films about notorious right-wingers made by left wing intellectuals.

Writing from the standpoint of someone whose first experience of voting in 1979 was spoiled by the milk snatcher herself taking control of the country, I was already grimly determined that this was not going to be an experience I could stomach. Is my generation doomed to end up as right wing as our parents seemed (well, mine did - they read the Telegraph, and my father, in a rare outburst of political candour, once admitted to an admiration of William Whitelaw - coincidentally the man who stood against Thatcher in the second round of the leadership battle for the Tories in 1978)? Like the tendency to complain about loud music in restaurants and to feel the cold increasingly - are we doomed to gradually go from Red Wedge-supporting yoof to something slightly to the right of Genghis Khan?

Luckily it's not that simple. Both films display a healthy enough grasp of the contradictions at the heart of each story. Politically, there's never a straight black and white divide in great figures' lives. Hoover, for instance, is portrayed as having a racist mother (Judy Dench) but is also known for eliminating the Ku Klux Klan, and his hatred of Martin Luther King seems to stem more from King's moral indiscretions than any colour issues. Thatcher's Darwinian capitalism was espoused by a woman who wholeheartedly supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality, although this isn't mentioned in the film. In fact, as a portrait of the UK's political landscape The Iron Lady is fairly hopeless. I mean, Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe? John Sessions as Edward Heath?!? Do me a favour…

But balancing this with the avowed intentions of screenwriter du jour, Abi Morgan, this is hardly surprising. Her approach is that of the most interesting form of feminist: one who prefers the macrocosmic to the overarching political landscape; the human over the historical. The most important speech of the film doesn't actually involve Meryl Streep's amazing turn, but features Alexandra Roach as the younger Maggie telling (a very good) Harry Lloyd as Denis that she won't 'die washing tea cups'. This jibe actually has the ring of truthfulness about it. And of course the idea of an Oxford chemistry graduate who then turned to law and politics while simultaneously raising a family is incredible. I have enough trouble making coffee in the morning.

The crux of Morgan's treatment lies in the relationship of daughter Carole (played brilliantly by Olivia Colman) with a mother who's losing it in her twilight years. As Morgan says, 'I have dementia in my own family so I recognised that as an experience and I’d observed it but I do think it’s more of a universal story. I don’t think it’s a political film. I think it’s about the study of power and the isolation of power, but that’s also set against the isolation of old age and in particular, the isolation of dementia, in a way.'

This is all very well, and as such the top and tail of the film are masterful. Yet, ultimately, The Iron Lady is really only half a movie. The portrayal of one woman's descent into dementia is utterly disarming, and ramped up to an incredible level by both La Streep's fabulous portrayal of a woman in her 80s and Jim Broadbent's ever-dependable affability as the hallucinatory conscience Denis, goading her for her weaknesses after a life of toughing it out at the highest levels of government. But when we get onto the typical episodic, biopic approach to the grocer's daughter climb up the greasy pole, things unravel.

As Liz Hoggard points out during her discussion with Peter Lilley, quite a few of the dramatic incidents (ie: poll tax rioters banging on her limo windows etc) never actually occurred. The portrayal of her first day in parliament shows her as a lone female in the House of Commons. While women were very much the minority in 1961 she was far from being alone of her sex. And I certainly found her transformation into some black clad S&M goddess while helping unite Europe (as her compadres plotted her downfall) slightly disturbing. The message seemingly being that her finest moment on the world stage equated to some kind of apotheosis as a sexy witch queen straight out of C S Lewis.

J Edgar on the other hand shows a far surer grasp of both genre and subtext. While Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is every inch the equal of Streep's (IMHO) he doesn't quite pull of the prosthetics so convincingly, although apparently his weight gain (amusingly referred to several times in the film a 'solid weight') was quite real. And Armie Hammer's turn as Hoover's closest ally, Clyde Tolson is plain silly - using a comic tremor and liver spots as shorthand for age. Yet the central premise of a demonised public figure finally brought low by the hands of time is identical. Still, J Edgar displays a far more even hand - balancing significant private facts (the dominance of his mother, his early insecurity which resulted in his (ha) machine gun delivery earning him the nickname 'Speedy', and of course his well-known closeness to Tolson combined with a confirmed batchelor life) with the same episodic approach.

And while, at times, the editing veers close to confusing there are enough clever touches to contextualise the narrative in our present time (cf: J Edgar's first date with Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy; where one can't help feeling that Hoover's display of library card indexing as a precursor to a national criminal database predicts the internet. And did anyone spot the fact that, by the end of the film, Hoover's biographer/confessor had transformed into an Obama lookalike?) But as Tolson tells J Edgar at the end of the movie - barely any of his confessions are true - his supposed presence at the takedown of all those gangsters was PR fluffery designed to net the Bureau a bigger budget, reminding us in canny Citizen Kane style that all reminiscence is untrustworthy.

The leftist principles of both writer and director never let Hoover off the hook: his power games, his confusion of personal drive for moral righteousness: all are dealt with capably and with due respect for a man who, if confused by the hypocrisy of power, also DID help establish modern investigative methods.

Ultimately - J Edgar succeeds not only from having a more experienced director at the helm, but by choosing its subject more cleverly. The film (if you believe the James Ellroy-style rumour mill) could easily have been a scurrilous hatchet job of a hated man's already-twisted reputation. By avoiding the obvious references to conspiracy theories behind JFK's assassination as well as not dwelling too long on his 'private files' (here used as an analogy for his paranoia as well as trust invested in one person - his PA, Ms Gandy), Eastwood manages to pin down the life of a man with few friends and a genuine drive to bring order to post communist USA, despite the odious ways in which he often did it. Also note that they cleverly bypass the legendary rumours of cross-dressing by having J Edgar merely try on his dead mother's dress in a moment of pure grief. There's respect but it's tempered by their unerring even-handedness.

The Iron Lady fails on the same criteria: Morgan's script is a more than competent look at dementia but stumbles when it's attached to a political landscape that's not only more than fresh in my generation's minds but also is attached to someone who is, lest we forget, still very much with us. One can't help but feel that the only reason that this wasn't presented as a analogous fiction (cf: Polanski's The Ghost) was because everyone at the studio knew that Meryl could pull of a brilliant (unnerving?) impersonation of Thatchbag. And for my money the subject of the effects of dementia on an enduring relationship were covered more effectively in Iris (which had... oh, Jim Broadbent as the dependable partner). The inevitable oscar is well-deserved but it doesn't excuse such a brutal subject's rather cavalier treatment. We owe a vast amount of our modern woes to MT's plucky home economics. It's far too early to forget this.

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