The Review: There are certain pivotal moments that everyone is supposed to remember; not only what happened, but where they were when it happened. I’m too young for JFK or the moon landing, but I can remember being woken to be told of Princess Di’s fatal car crash, and I can remember sitting in my school library when someone came over to tell me that Margaret Thatcher was stepping down. I was five when she came to power, and sixteen when the mutiny in her party ended her reign, and my early years were dominated by the figure in power suits on TV. When she fell, it was impossible not to have an opinion on her reign, and even now, twenty years later, she casts a shadow over the political landscape that’s likely to last for decades to come. Surely a time for a biopic of Britain’s most significant leader since Churchill is right, especially as the country slips into the kind of conditions that blighted her first two terms in office?
So why we’ve ended up with this half-baked, ham-fisted effort is anyone’s guess. Let’s start with the obvious: Meryl obviously means mesmerising in some foreign tongue. Although she only portrays Maggie from her time in the Commons (Alexandra Roach does a pretty good job of her younger years), Meryl has the Prime Minister and later Baroness Thatcher down pat. The physical resemblance isn’t quite there, the narrow-eyed condescending expression of the real Thatcher replaced with a slightly more wide-eyed stare, but in every other sense her Margaret is utterly immaculate. Streep perfectly captures the sense of the woman, both in full flight laying down the law to the men around her, and in her dotage as she attempts to deal with the facets of her dementia.
Streep will probably walk off with an Oscar, and it would be well deserved, so it’s almost a tragedy that pretty much everything else in The Iron Lady is various levels of lacking. In terms of the cast, Streep is sublime, but the rest form a sliding scale to the ridiculous. Olivia Colman has a prosthetic which still fails to make her look like Carol Thatcher but does well on the acting stakes, and Jim Broadbent captures the bumbling, cheerful nature associated with Denis but is given little to do in reality. At the other extreme, Richard E Grant makes a slightly odd Michael Heseltine and Anthony Head might just be one of the most miscast people ever as Geoffrey Howe. A wide range of other figures get paraded through during the running time, most of whom you’ll recognise if you’re British but few if any of whom have chance to make much impression. Just like Maggie’s government, then.
But if the rest of the cast struggle manfully, it’s the script and the direction that are a real let-down. Abi Morgan’s script has an odd fixation with the dementia years; it might have made for a useful bookending device to give lazy context to the rest of the story, but so much time is spent with Margaret’s hallucinations of dead husband Denis and an equally odd fixation with Rogers and Hammerstein that the meat of the story feels swamped. When I see meat, though, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s any genuine understanding here of what made Maggie tick, or any attempt to understand the impact of her politics in any wider context. Watching The Iron Lady is like watching a dramatisation of a Wikipedia page, and about half as thrilling; the dementia episodes serve only to make it feel as if the page is still being edited while you’re watching it. Events are oddly out of order and without context (the Grand Hotel atrocity seems to inform Margaret’s views on terrorism prior to the Falklands war, even though in reality it happened two years later) and every scene has the depth of the shallow end of a paddling pool. The Iron Lady fails to understand either the woman or the situations in which she lived, and Lloyd’s direction is the icing on a rather bitter cake, adding an almost pantomime quality with scenes of farce that would have seemed over the top in her previous effort, Mamma Mia! There’s an evident feminist agenda at the start, but by the end the loss of faculties has affected the film as badly – no matter what your politics, you can’t help feeling that Thatcher deserved better than this.
Why see it at the cinema: I’m struggling to think of good reasons if I’m being brutally honest. Shot with a TV movie of the week sensibility, and using far too much stock footage to come over clearly, unless you want to be dominated by Streep’s performance then there’s no reason not to wait for the DVD. Or not bother.
The Score: 3/10
The Review: Boxing movies have a lot to live up to when it comes to covering new ground, with both the fictional (such the “Rocky” series) and the biographical (including “Raging Bull”) giving this particular sub-genre an incredibly strong pedigree. There is, of course, a part of the audience who will be judging on the realism of the fights themselves, while others are looking for satisfying drama between the punches, and to be successful a boxing movie really needs to score on both counts. Given the depth and breadth of the history of the sport, it’s not surprising that you can still find true stories worth telling but, as a philosopher once said, “it’s the way ya tell ‘em.”
The first thing that The Fighter has in its corner is a story with a strong array of characters, strong enough that the cast were showered with awards and nominations. Christian Bale’s performance is the most obvious, and he does push his portrayal of Dicky, the once successful elder brother who lives off his moment of glory as he slides ever downwards, as far as he can – anyone who’s a fan of Christian Bale will know that’s pretty far. By contrast, Mark Wahlberg’s Micky is the polar opposite, quiet, reserved and unwilling to challenge his mother and manager, Alice (Melissa Leo), at least until he begins a relationshop the similarly reserved but more defiant barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams). The family is rounded out by Micky and Dicky’s father and seven sisters, and the influence of both becomes increasingly crucial as Micky attempts to further his career while Dicky begins to make promises he can’t keep.
Bale has stated that he couldn’t have given such a performance without Wahlberg to counterbalance it, and it’s hard to disagree, the quieter moments of Bale and Adams’ relationship providing a needed contrast to the family dramas that populate the rest of the film. Occasionally picking out humorous moments, the main body of the drama is driven by Dicky’s behaviour and its ramifications for all of those around him; themes of family and loyalty come up repeatedly, and also the impact that both the highs and lows of the brothers’ actions on the local community, but the drama eventually boils down to the actions of the two brothers. While Bale got all of the attention, Wahlberg’s contribution as both actor and producer shouldn’t be underestimated, having trained for four years (and made six other films in the mean time), working to turn himself into a believable physical specimen for a world championship fighter.
The fights themselves are maybe the weak link, having neither the poetic beauty of a Raging Bull or the physical intensity of the Rocky movies. Director David O. Russell has chosen to portray much of the footage as if seen through a TV screen, which serves to distance the audience slightly from the experience, although the punches still land with a certain amount of weight. That style does succeed in capturing the shiny glamour of the Vegas lifestyle and why it would be so aspirational to a couple of fighters from the poor end of Massachusetts. There is a tension as to the eventual outcome throughout proceedings, and this is despite the fact that the general structure doesn’t really deviate all that much from the majority of other sports movies ever made, never mind boxing movies. Russell manages his actors well enough, but the film lacks any truly standout moments to elevate it to true greatness. Still, it’s a fascinating story and the family dynamics give it a certain feeling of freshness, but by the time the final bell rings we’re left with a film that doesn’t quite site at the top of the genre.
Why see it at the cinema: You’ll need a big screen to be able to differentiate between all of the seven sisters and their mother, but the cinema is also the best place to take in the razzmatazz of the fight scenes.
The Score: 8/10