The Artist

It has become one of the most talked about films of 2012, but it could easily have been lifted straight out of 1927. The Artist (in case you didn’t know) is a French produced movie which is silent, and shot entirely in black and white. A stroke of genius or just a cash in on the contemporary appetite for retro? Perhaps somewhere in the middle.

The movie centres on a silent film star who loses everything he stands for when talkies are introduced. Heard this one before? This plot has been a winner for a host of movies harking back to the era of classic cinema, from the tragic fate of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), to the musical Singin’ In The Rain (1952) which shows how some actors managed to survive the change, whilst others failed miserably. In fact, once they’ve throw in the love story that highlights the well-known entertainment process of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, you’ve got yourself a story which feels overly familiar.

Taking us through the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the setting of the film has some striking similarities to the state of the world today, and it is worth remembering that the silent films of Charlie Chaplin thrived through the Great Depression, despite the talkies already being up and running. Just like then, there is something strangely comforting in the simplicity of this film – like all the buttons of sound, colour, 3D, blu ray and high definition are suddenly switched off, and yet the storytelling does not suffer. Under the surface, this story set 80 years ago may have a bit more relevance to our present day climate than we’d imagine.

The star turn of the movie is undoubtedly Uggie, who plays Jack, the dog. This Jack Russell has captured the attention of the world, doing publicity in his own right, showing off all his well trained tricks. He acts as the perfect companion to Jean Valentin, the movie’s main protagonist, and his displays of loyalty and love are enough to break the hearts of even the stoniest of cinema-goers. Many have been calling for him to receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor; but then perhaps the War Horse may want a Best Actor nomination, so it’s really a can of worms not worth opening.

It’s interesting to make such a stripped back film at a time when other movies are trying to make everything bigger and brighter, but it would have been nice to see the movie tackle a more contemporary plot. Just because the movie is silent and in black and white, doesn’t mean it had to be set back when that kind of cinema making was standard. The director could have packed a greater punch if he’d used the genre to depict a modern setting and scenario – I think back to Woody Allen’s black and white masterpiece Manhattan (1979) – it would still have evoked the days of classic cinema, but perhaps could have made it more relevant to modern audiences. I say this because as a 22 year old, I was by far the youngest person at the screening I attended (the average age being about 55). Silent films require a different kind of acting – whether you view it as more real, or a bit farcical – and I’d quite like to see how that might play out in a story set in 2012.

For many of the other movies vying for the Best Picture prize at the Oscars next month, The Artist must feel like something of a cop out. What the director has done is nothing revolutionary – he’s just done it at a strange time. In the eyes of many, this is a movie anyone could have made, and be assured some success from. Nevertheless, it is the sheer novelty of The Artist as it sits among its peers this year, that has made it hot property for the awards season. Whether or not it can win the top prize remains to be seen.

The Artist is at cinemas everywhere now.

The Iron Lady

It’s set to become one of the biggest films of the year, with a leading lady performance tipped for Oscar glory, but it’s difficult to sum up exactly what The Iron Lady is like. The Margaret Thatcher story was never going to be an easy one to tell, and this film did begin life as a ‘week in the life of’ based around the Falklands, before fleshing out into more of a biopic. Then again, as I use the word biopic I hesitate, for the history of the woman herself is not exactly given a comprehensive analysis. Instead, director Phyllida Lloyd has chosen to base the film on the imagined current day suffering of dementia which keeps Thatcher locked away in her Belgravia home. Day to day sounds and conversations, events and TV news flashes throw the 85 year old back into random vignettes from her long life as one of the most famous and divisive politicians of the 20th century. And, her imagined manifestation of deceased husband Denis is at her side for most of the current day setting; provoking, narrating, even clowning. It’s certainly a lot to take in.

It seems a great liberty for Lloyd to make a fictionalised account of Thatcher’s mental decline and make it count for almost half of the film. On the other hand, it is an eye opener to the disease itself, and I imagined instantly that it will profoundly touch anyone whose family has been affected by the disease; this is even before mentioning the elements of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy it evokes. In the beginning the issue was treated well: the mention of an upcoming Rogers and Hammerstein concert instantly transported Thatcher to her post-war youth when she first met Dennis. In this sense, dementia became a crafty plot device for the director to present isolated flashbacks in a biopic which would never have had time to tell the whole story. However, as it went on there were points where these links became less impressive and more contrived. When Thatcher accidentally stumbles on top of a bronze soldier statuette, it’s the cue for her to remember sinking the Belgrano – at this, the word that came to my mind was ‘sloppy’.

On the subject of style, it’s also worth noting that this is a movie told exclusively from Thatcher’s mind, so you can be rest assured you’re only getting her side of things. Sound bites and newsreels remind us of the headlines and public opinions which we already know so well. That is if you know them so well. You’d have to have a good memory (or in the case of anyone under 25, a good understanding) of 1980s Britain to keep up with the narrative at ease. And yet, if you are something of a history buff, you’ll feel a little short changed. Fair enough, the Falklands are given a decent enough explanation when that moment appears, but the IRA bombings – in particular, the Brighton bomb of 1984 – are featured fairly prominently, without explanation, and without any words on the issue spoken by Thatcher herself. Another weak point was that footage of the 1981 riots, the miner’s strikes, and the 10p tax protests were all used interchangeably to represent social chaos, without either of the three being discussed or explained. The film does focus more on Thatcher the woman, therefore the politics is relevant only when it is relevant to her personally – such as her very sudden and unexpected usurping from within her own party. It’s also Lloyd’s way of making sure this film doesn’t have a political slant, and as someone who professes to be ‘on the other side’ to Mrs T, she does a good job of being unbiased.

The final thing to discuss – and it’s largely inevitable – is Meryl Streep. Whatever you think of the film, its script or even Thatcher herself, Streep is every bit as exceptional as has been anticipated and reported since pre-production began. I would hesitate to use the phrase ‘performance of a lifetime’ for a woman with the back catalogue like hers, but it is certainly a piece which will stand prominently in her oeuvre. Will she win the Oscar? If there’s any justice then it should already be hers (the simple equation of a biopic plus a mental illness is enough to assure this triumph). And yet, it’s not Thatcher’s iconic persona that made this role a winner for Streep – it’s Streep’s talent that makes this entire film. And, as much as her performance is an impeccable impersonation of one of the most famous women in the world (helped greatly by an uncanny makeover), it is also a remarkable portrayal of an elderly woman with dementia; deprived of all the skills, power and familial love that she once cherished. If Streep had been playing a complete unknown suffering in this state, she would deserve similar recognition; and that’s the real bonus of this performance.

The Iron Lady is in cinemas everywhere now.