(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: London Ladies

The stage musical Billy Elliot includes the showstopping song "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," a satiric ode to the long-reigning, conservative British Prime Minister. Appropriately, a new film biography of Thatcher, The Iron Lady, is arriving in US theaters this Christmas holiday season. Meryl Streep stars in the title role and gives yet another amazing, award-worthy performance (La Meryl has already won the New York Film Critics' award for Best Actress and been nominated for SAG and Golden Globe honors for her work here). If only the movie that surrounds her was as good.

The Iron Lady charts Thatcher's rise to power from her humble beginnings as daughter of a provincial grocer to becoming the first and only woman to date to serve as Prime Minister. It also explores her current and -- if the film is to be believed -- fairly demented status, conversing with her beloved late husband (wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent), bemoaning the high price of milk and saying things (not so dementedly) like "It used to be about trying to do something; Now it's about trying to be someone." Whether this is an accurate representation or not, Streep is especially good depicting Thatcher's later years and embodying an elderly woman in general.

As erratically written by Abi Morgan and chaotically directed by Phyllida Lloyd (who previously paired with Streep in bringing Mamma Mia! to the screen), the film is oddly constructed and shifts back and forth in time not only within minutes but sometimes within the same minute. It is at once convoluted and simplistic. To the filmmakers' and Streep's credit, though, The Iron Lady is never boring. I even wonder if it would work better as a musical, given Streep's and Lloyd's last joint success. Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I is even referenced at several points, with Thatcher and husband Dennis joyfully dancing together. Maybe Elton John and Lee Hall, who co-wrote Billy Elliot for the stage, can take The Iron Lady on as their next project.

Years after Thatcher's leadership ended, things aren't looking so good in London. Despite this year's lavish royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, London has been subjected to political and economic unrest, violent riots and terrorist attacks. One devastating act of terrorism in 2005 has inspired the powerful new drama London River, which is already playing in New York City and opens this weekend in Los Angeles.

Brenda Blethyn (perhaps best remembered for her high-strung "Sweetie Darling" turn in 1996's Secrets & Lies) plays Elizabeth, the rural mother of a London-based daughter. When her daughter fails to return her phone calls in the wake of coordinated bombings that killed 52 people and injured more than 700, Elizabeth goes to London to see what's going on. Once there, she learns that her daughter had been taking classes in Arabic and fallen in with a group of possibly radical Muslims. Elizabeth also meets Ousmane (the late Sotigui Kouyate, who won the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear for Best Actor), a French arborist searching for his son.

As they interview police, teachers and friends, Elizabeth and Ousmane must confront the growing reality that their children aren't the people they thought they knew and, worse, may have been at least partly responsible for the terrorist attack. Director Rachid Bouchareb (who helmed the Oscar-nominated Days of Glory and Outside the Law) draws excellent, haunting performances from Blethyn and Kouyate. Ultimately moving and cautionary, London River shouldn't be missed.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Iron Lady: B-
London River: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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