The Iron Lady is Made of Lead

The Iron Lady (2011)

Directed by Phylida Lloyd

Film4, 113 mins. PG-13


Another bid for an Oscar goes down in flames. It began as a wastepaper fire, but raged out of control because the audience was too bored to notice until the flaming paper-–Abi Morgan’s screenplay–took down everything in its path.

The Iron Lady is, reputedly, a biopic of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose reign of error lasted from 1979 to 1990. Maggie Thatcher was Britain’s Reagan–a pol who gave the country over to bankers and speculators, privatized everything that wasn’t nailed down, smashed labor unions, and called it all “prosperity,” based on the evidence that a small percentage of Brits enjoyed wealth and clout the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the barons and gentry perished in the wake of World War I. She was the longest-serving PM of the 20th century, and won reelections that reflected her popularity for having presided over Britain’s victory in the 1983 Falklands War, which allowed Britain to entertain the fantasy that it was still a mighty empire. In the end, though, that proved as illusory as the second coming of the aristocracy. Brits continue to wrestle with her decisions to cut holes in the social safety net and break up British Telecom, British Airways, British Steel, and British Rail, to say nothing of her 1985 decision to reject integrating the British economy with the rest of the E.U.

Why the history lesson? Because you won’t learn much of this from the film. Thatcher, now 88, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, a fate one would wish on no one. This fact led to a curious decision on the part of Morgan and Lloyd: they focus most of the film on the post-2003 period, that year being the one in which Thatcher’s husband Denis died, and in which her own dementia began to spin out of control. Thatcher’s life is told episodically through a series of flashbacks, but the back story is truncated. That’s too bad. Young Thatcher-–actually Margaret Roberts–is played by Alexandra Roach. She is a fresh face and shows Roberts/Thatcher as a principled and fiercely determined young woman. Once Margaret is married and on the rise, Meryl Streep takes over.

I am such a huge Streep fan that I think she is this generation’s Katherine Hepburn, but she is–as the Brits would say–bloody awful in this film. Of course she can do the accent and, yes, there is some impressive acting on her part, which is part of the problem. This is one of those films in which you see the acting rather than losing yourself in the characterization. It’s as if the film should be titled The Iron Lady: Meryl Streep’s Bid for an Oscar. Streep’s attempt to wrench sympathy for the demented Thatcher is pure bathos, and her tirades against her Cabinet ministers are histrionic.

To be fair, she’s dealing with a lame script. Morgan’s screenplay has Margaret spending half the film speaking with Denis (Jim Broadbent) after his demise. Great! Just what we all wanted–Topper Goes to Parliament. The film’s longest sequences have Streep moving through a confused fog; the actual events of Thatcher’s ministry appear as snippets stripped of depth and nuance. Even worse is the film’s dishonest impression management. Thatcher is shown as argumentative, bullying, and obstinate, but small insertions such as a tabloid proclaiming booming stock markets juxtaposed against angry strikers leave the impression that she was ultimately right. Really? Ask the Scots about that; Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 poll tax almost single-handedly insured the success of Scotland’s 1997 devolution vote.

Even worse are the mawkish scenes in which Thatcher is presented as an inspiration for British women. That might be true of the Bloomsbury and fox hunting sets, but good God! I’m happy to debate the wisdom of Thatcher’s economic policies, but viewing her as a feminist icon is too absurd to warrant wasting my breath.

In the interest of full disclosure I should note that each of my three cinema companions loved the film. Who should you trust? Me on this one. Box office receipts have been scant, reviewers have been indifferent, and audience scores are low. It seems that The Iron Lady is made of lead.


I'm Not Pissed Off by Marine Pissing Incident

Aggressive pissing--not nice, but not a war crime.

You can place this one near the top of my “Damned-if-I-Care” list. The Obama administration and the U.S. Marines Corps have expressed shock over a video in which four Marines were shown urinating on the bodies of Taliban combatants. Disciplinary action is probably in the offing as, after all, we must show the world that Americans don’t do mean things. So once again, some kids will be made sacrificial lambs to cover the sins of their elders.

Do I condone urinating on bodies? No. But given what is asked of those sent to Afghanistan, if the worst troops do in such an untenable situation is pee on a few corpses, they’re hardly war criminal material. Isn’t it oh-so-easy to punish those on the ground for geopolitical obstacles that policymakers can’t solve and military leaders are powerless to remove? If these four Marines receive anything stronger than a stern lecture, their unit should demand a transfer stateside.

The hypocrisy of policymakers and military brass is stunning. What did you expect? You train young people to become killing machines, tell them that the enemy represents pure evil, build unit cohesion, then send them off to a place where they watch their comrades killed and brutalized. Then you say, “Remember kids; be nice.” How does that work, exactly? I also can’t condone the torture of living human beings the likes of which we saw at Abu Graibh, but those who were surprised by that are eligible to have their pictures posted in the dictionary beside the entry for naïveté.

As for complaints from the Taliban (in Pakistan, of course!) about American “brutality” and the “desecration” of Muslim bodies, please excuse me while I sneer. Listening to complaints from the Taliban is like listening to a hangman complaining about rope burn. I’ll get upset about Piss-Gate when I hear the Taliban apologize to Daniel Pearl’s widow. I wonder where the Marines got the idea to disrespect corpses? It couldn’t have anything to do with seeing the video of Pearl’s beheading, or of witnessing American bodies being dragged through the streets, could it? It’s hypocrisy even by the Taliban’s debased standards to moan about rules of war that it doesn’t respect.

The very best way to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again is to bring the troops home. Retribution for 9/11 has been exacted, Osama bin Laden is dead, the Taliban is tucked away in Pakistan, and the Karzai government in Kabul is just as sexist and treacherous as the one he replaced. Every day troops remain active in the senseless Afghani conflict increases the odds that some soldiers will act in ways they’d normally find repulsive. It’s time to exit and let Afghanis sort out this Inferno for themselves.

As for me, I really do want people to be nice. So here’s my ecumenical gesture in the name of promoting world peace. If I die a natural death–as opposed to being killed by a religious fanatic–persons from all religious persuasions are invited to piss on me. I only ask that you line up nicely and don’t fight.


The Night Circus Thrills on Every Page

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern

Doubleday, 2011

I began reading Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus in December and even when just half done I thought it the best work of fiction I read in 2011. I finished it in early January, and I’d not be the slightest bit shocked if it ends up being the best novel I read in 2012 as well. This is one of those rare books one is sorry to finish because it means an end to the wonderment.

The central premise is disarmingly simple. Today we live in a world of illusions and of skepticism. We see magicians, but we know they’re not real; there are even TV shows that demonstrate how the tricks are done. We marvel at the technology and at the clever performances that make us not see what is patently obvious once the ruse is revealed, but we don’t believe in magic. Morgenstern takes us to back to Victorian London. It too was a society in which illusionists abounded, but by the time this novel opens in 1886, most thinking people were as deeply skeptical as we are today. The floodgates opened in 1882 when the Society for Psychical Research began to expose mesmerists, mediums, and assorted tricksters as frauds. The bottom fell out of the spooky world cottage industry in 1888, when the Fox sisters, the period’s most famous spiritualists, were exposed as nothing more than carny con artists. Thus, the patrons who attend Le Cirque des Rêves marvel over the amazing illusions they witness, but they assume it to be a fantasy world no more real than the dreams alluded to in the spectacle’s name. But what if they’re wrong? What if they are witnessing bona fide magic and the real illusion is getting audiences to assume it’s chicanery? What if the entire circus was created by the paranormal powers of just a few individuals who were so good that not even the circus’s putative designers, managers, and other performers were entirely aware that most of their “artistry” was accomplished through magic?

If magic is real, what kind of alternative reality can be created? Morgenstern, a 2000 graduate of Smith College, gives her own imagination free rein, and what an imagination it is—gowns that change shape and color, ambrosia-like foods whose ingredients no one can quite pin down, gravity-defying rooms that appear to be made of clouds, ice-curtained fantasy realms without refrigeration, thrilling rides that defy the laws of physics, acrobatic kittens, clocks of greater complexity than a modern computer, actors that seem never to age… And it all unfolds within black and white tents that mysteriously appear overnight, as is appropriate for a circus that commences at sunset and closes at sunrise.

The circus, it seems, is actually the set for an elaborate contest between two ancient master wizards, Prospero and Alexander, which they wage through their proxies, Prospero’s gifted daughter Celia, and Alexander’s chosen ward Marco. The latter are also pawns, unaware of the degree to which they must participate, but increasingly drawn to concerns over the welfare of the circus, the innocents whose lives they control, and to each other. Who are Prospero and Alexander? Greek gods among mortals? Competing demons? Two cranky wizards who’ve been competing for so long that the game has become all-consuming?

Some critics have compared The Night Circus to Harry Potter and the works of Neil Gaiman. I can see the Gaiman connection, but this one is far more adult than Harry Potter. It also bears atmospheric similarities to Terry Gilliam’s The Imginarium of Doctor Parnassus and to Steven Millhauser’s Pulitizer Prize-winning novel Martin Dressler. And life inside the show bears some resemblance to Cirque du Soliel.

Does The Night Circus deserve to be mentioned amidst such august company? I’d concede that there are flaws that betray the author’s youth and inexperience. I wondered why she didn’t set the main action in New York, as she’s clearly American in her sensitivities and her evocation of Victorian London isn’t exactly Dickensian. Some of the characters have great depth, others seem sketchily underdeveloped. I’m sure that serious critics would say that there’s quite a bit of sleight of hand in the novel. You know what? I don’t give a damn. I haven’t been this engaged in a novel in years and I don’t care if the entire thing is as phony as the Fox sisters. I bought into the fantasy cape, cane, and rabbit.