Alas, I return to school in the coming week, so I’m not going to get to go to the movies quite as often as I would like. So I have made it my mission to try and go see any many movies as I can during this winter break, in the hopes I could see the big-name films before I left, in preparation for Oscar Season.
This week we’ll be doing a first: a Manic Movie Magic Double Feature, covering the two acclaimed films riding high in theaters right now: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Iron Lady.
I’m not going to discuss the plot of the films simply because it would be pretty useless on both accounts. The Iron Lady is basically a historical account of the life of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – you could Wikipedia her career and there would be your plot. As for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the whole fun of a spy film (or so I’m told) is watching everything unfold, so I can’t spoil anything.
So, let’s start off with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The film takes place in 1960-1970s Cold War England, where a retired spy, played by Gary Oldman, is brought back to duty to find a Soviet mole. The reveal on who the mole is was actually a little disappointing, mostly because there is no real reason why it had to be that particular person, and the film barely gives you one. Literally, it could have been anyone in the cast, and it would have made the same amount of sense. While I understand that this was done to be more realistic about a mole in an intricate group of intelligence agents, it feels like they picked it at random.
Part of the reason I didn’t like the movie was because I don’t really enjoy espionage films, and if I can’t know my own biases I’d be a bad critic. I often find them boring, unless it’s one of those James Bond action spy ones, and I don’t see the appeal of the genre.
But, another part of the reason I didn’t like it was the color scheme of the film. I understand this era has a very brown-green-dulled out look, which is very mellow and plastic looking. If you look at it from that perspective, the film is a spot-on representation of the era, which does get it points in my book. It’s also a fantastic way to shift and shape the atmosphere of the film, because this story is pretty dark, and the color that is present is used for contrast. HOWEVER after looking at the screen for over two hours is tough on the eyes and it added to the bored feeling. Couldn’t there be a little change in the spectrum? Really?
Gary Oldman is fantastic, playing off a very troubled, tired ex-spy with subtly and grace that was a great surprise to see. Mark Strong is heartbreaking as a tortured, forcibly-retired spy who tried to find meaning to his new civilian life and school teacher position, ultimately finding it disappointing and unable to deal with the loss of his livelihood. These two were the only thing keeping me invested in the film when everything else was hitting a slump. The other actors in this film do a good job, to be sure, there are no mediocre or bad performances, but they pale in comparison to Oldman and Strong.
The film’s plot is very subtle and subdued, marked with interconnecting story lines, spotted with intense scenes of violence and torture which really effective. However, in order to make those graphic scenes as effective as they are, the in-between portion can be slow, often falling to a lull which can easily put one in a stupor. Again, if I liked spy films better, I am sure I would have been much more interested in the little details and all of the scenes, but I found it very unimpressive. From a technical aspect, however, I cannot deny this is a very well made movie – the cinematography, the characters, the setting, and even the music works to build a well-structured and surprisingly sound piece of non-fiction cinema. Just because it’s not my particular cup of tea doesn’t mean it won’t be yours.
The Iron Lady follows the career of Margaret Thatcher, the first female British Prime Minister, who is both idolized and demonized by historians and political buffs alike. I’m going to be honest and say that Thatcher’s era of British politics is nowhere near the area of history I love (think 10th to 17th century), so I don’t really have a developed opinion on her as a political figure, but I certainly wasn’t going to let the film dictate an opinion to me.
I was surprised to see that the film wasn’t as preachy as I thought. Don’t get me wrong, there was still a lot of pull from the pro-Thatcher camp, but the film doesn’t try to obscure the less-than-favorable side of her personality and politics. The way I think of it is that Thatcher is your cold, angry ex-suffragette grandma: set in her ways, stubborn, and downright insensitive with the things she says or does, but you know in the end you tolerate her for those few moments where she acts like a legit grandmother.
Thatcher is often portrayed as a cold, even heartless, woman whose ambition laid waste to all other aspect of her personal and political life, but the film manages to remind us that she is merely human, who makes mistakes and feels fear and loneliness like us all. I have heard criticism that the portrayal of Thatcher wasn’t as nuisanced and impartial as it could have been, which I agree with, but considering she’s still alive, it could have been more of a loving tribute than it was.
I will say that there was no explanation of the events going on, which was a detriment to the plot as a whole. I knew more or less what was happening, but my mother (yes, I go to the movies with my mother, what of it?) had no clue what was going on, and she LIVED through this period in time. If there had been better structuring of the historical events and riots, it would have made a lot more sense to the audience what her impact on England, and the stressful situation she had to deal with. I also felt a plot line brought in about her children could have used more fleshing out because it would have helped develop Thatcher’s character further but I suppose they wanted to keep it short.
This movie screams Oscar bait – and it doesn’t help that The King’s Speech came out the year before. Hopefully, the formula of “British Politicial Figures + Biographic Content = Instant-Oscar-Acclaim” doesn’t become a thing. Meryl Streep is probably going to win another Oscar for her performance, and it was a very good one, though certainly not one of my favorites. I think there should be special attention brought to Alexandra Roach who plays young Thatcher, whose performance I think is just as impressive as Streep’s, and really makes the transition between young to older Thatcher really seamless. I don’t know why her performance is so overlooked – I thought her and Harry Llyod (who played young Denis Thatcher) did much better than expected, and had wonderful chemistry.
Much like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this film really captures the feeling of the era through the imagery used, though to a different effect. The Iron Lady makes the past seem idyllic visually, full of color and life, while the present is dulled out and overly modern, almost ugly in a way. This is, of course, a reflection of how Thatcher views these two time periods, but it seems a little strange that a movie which is representing the past as a misogynistic world in which Thatcher must fight as the bright and colorful one, and the one where she is well respected as dull.
Overall, The Iron Lady is also a well made film, with strangely, a lot of heart and thought put into the life of this cold and complex woman who changed history. While it’s nowhere near perfect, it is a pretty enjoyable film which is a good way to send some time on a Sunday afternoon, though if it wins for Best Picture, I am going to be extremely disappointed.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:
The Iron Lady:
Tune in next week when I take a look at the film Heartless.