Film releases: January 6

As I came out of The Iron Lady after being handbagged, nay sandbagged by Meryl Streep’s multi-contoured, many-faceted, miraculous performance as Margaret Thatcher, I heard someone say, “It’s just acting”. Dear someone: you are right. Streep’s Thatcher is just acting; Milton’s Paradise Lost is just writing; the Parthenon is just a building. Let’s get things in proportion. The universe is just a universe; God (if he exists) is just God.

Or, then again, there is awe. If Streep’s acting is “just” anything, it is just extraordinary, just overpowering, and just to every flicker and foible of the woman Britain, and the world, lived with for the last decades of a millennium. Abi Morgan’s screenplay extends her myth into this millennium: it flashbacks to leadership days from Baroness T’s old age. The octogenarian Thatcher is rendered dotty by dramatic purpose. This way she can gabble with the ghost of husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, endearing if not quite the bespectacled wraith we remember), drifting in and out of the décor, while the past keeps zapping the present. Grocer’s daughter; Oxford University; Tory MP turned PM (the honorific letters sent through the looking glass); finally the history we Brits know backwards: miners’ strike, Brighton bombing, Falklands war, the poll tax, the final march to the glittering, kamikaze absolutism that deposed her.

Streep gets everything right. The caressing, husky voice that can suddenly bellow like Boudicca; the head pressed forward, amid crowds, in polite but menacing enquiry, like a cobra interviewing potential victims. Streep even catches that strange, implacable gait, the Thatcher walk, that surge forward with a slight sidle, as if for this Lady Ambition advancing was a continuous triumph of will.

Older, she is the same but subtler. The film’s portrait of haunted age might have been corny – Richard III and his Bosworth ghosts, even a touch of Queen Lear (“I will not go mad”) – without Streep’s unsentimental precision. She gets our pity by not inviting it. Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd, who directed Streep in Mamma Mia! and had the brainwave to cast her as the western world’s Mamma Nostra, are right to amplify the present and do the past as lightning flashes. More history would become mere hysteria. Instead we have a selective Sturm und Drang of headline moments, fading into the perfect tragicomedy of the last power years. The revolt of Heseltine (Richard E Grant); the managed decline (or perhaps mismanaged) of Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head); the last, tremendous House of Commons show. “I’m enjoying this!” We all were.

Only once is there a jolt of spurious simplification. Thatcher learned of the death by car bomb of her friend and mentor Airey Neave MP when TV reporters told her and caught her response on camera. That is far more dramatic, or poignant, than her witnessing the blast from nearby, as here.

A bolder, better simplification is the overhead shot of the maiden parliamentarian processing into the Commons, a patch of blue amid the sea of grey. Like her or not, that’s what Mrs Thatcher was: a piece of sky-blue evangelism, pellucid, some might say potty, some might say worse, in the grey vistas of British politics. Streep does the youngish/middle-aged Thatcher – once the acting baton has been passed from twentyish lookalike Alexandra Roach – as brilliantly as the old. This isn’t “just” acting, pace Mr Someone. The performer’s whole spiritual motor seems to have been set to the subject’s speed, swapping tempo, all but swapping engine parts, high-performance Meryl for high-performance Maggie. An act of imagination, empathy and a kind of possessory passion.

Mother and Child arrives clattering with prestige, like a wedding car trailing posh-labelled tin cans. The producer is Alejandro González Iñárritu of Babel and Biutiful. The writer-director is Rodrigo García, son of Gabriel García Marquez. The star is Annette Bening, the darling of upscale US independent cinema.

The film is terribly sincere and sincerely terrible. It is an epic soap about two alienated women (Bening and Naomi Watts), alienated from themselves and others, unable to connect with the world emotionally (I’m plunging my hand in the psychobabble) and living separated stories in the style of Babel and 21 Grams (another Iñárritu/Watts co-venture). Bening’s lonely 50-year-old and Watts’s promiscuous, wilful, embittered thirtysomething live far-sundered lives, while a third, Afro-American female (Kerry Washington) heads up a plot about a distressed adoption attempt.

Films like this disprove F Scott Fitzgerald. No second acts in American lives? There are more like 20. Pointlessly teasing us with distances we know will be closed, teasingly pointing with its prolix parallelisms dramatic brickwork that is less expressively weathered than García thinks – if only these people were worn and believably human – it betrays its vacant pretensions at the first emotional climax. We feel no emotion and no climax. García may have a good movie in him; Iñárritu may have another (he once made Amores Perros). But as collaborators they should be divorced and sent, like their characters, to far-flung corners of the creative planet.

Goon, distantly based on a true story, is as amiably idiotic as its hero. In that North American sporting free-for-all called ice hockey, a team sometimes signs a player for his ability to bash up opposing players. Doug the Thug (Seann William Scott of Dude, Where’s My Car?) is thus appointed. The likable lug heads to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where violence is a way of life, or at least a way to keep warm. The ice-rink Walpurgisnächte come thick and fast, but there are interludes for romance. “You make me want to give up sleeping with a bunch of guys,” sweetly says the bed-hopping hoyden he loves. At the end the audience disperses in a daze, saying “Dude, where’s my brain?”, but also feeling a warmish glow around the heart.

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