The Iron Lady and A Separation

Personal notes


The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep doesn't simply play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady; she exudes her. With an intense concentration, Streep captures both the chipper intransigence of Britain's first female prime minister (from 1979 to 1990), and—with the aid of uncannily realistic old-age makeup and prosthetics—the lonely dementia of her dotage, into which we are told she is sunk today, at the age of 86.

Streep is brilliant, fully validating the decision by director Phyllidia Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) to go with an American actress in portraying an Englishwoman of such long familiarity. So it's odd to find this technically complex and naturalistic performance encased in such a resolutely old-fashioned, Hollywood-style biopic. I half expected to see Thatcher bumping into Greer Garson's Madame Curie in one of the film's many dream-world reveries.

The movie dutifully ticks off the highlights of Thatcher's career: the rise of the provincial grocer's daughter through the Conservative Party ranks to the top of the political order; her facing down of the powerful trade unions whose strikes were threatening to paralyze the country in the early 1980s; her condemnations of socialism and unflinching defense of free markets in the face of hooting derision in the House of Commons; her handling of the 1982 Falklands war, in which Britain controversially prevailed; and her unyielding condemnation of bomb-planting IRA terrorism. ("We have always lived alongside evil," the PM says. "But it has never been so impatient, so avid for carnage, so eager to carry innocence along with it into oblivion.")

The script, by Abi Morgan (Shame), steps lightly in a few areas, like Thatcher's opposition to international sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa; but the movie has no apparent partisan agenda. It presents the good and the bad (depending on one's political orientation) in episodic chunks before returning to its encompassing narrative—which is pure invention. We see the doddering Iron Lady in retirement, with gun-bearing guards discreetly tucked away among the softly carpeted hallways of her private residence, passing the isolated hours in affectionate conversation with her dead husband, Denis (a jolly Jim Broadbent). Amid all the flashbacks to earlier chapters of Thatcher's real life, which are abundantly documented, these squishy fantasy interludes—despite Streep's most winning efforts—are bizarre. There is also something basically distasteful about using the infirmities of a living person's old age as fodder for such syrupy speculation. And when the aged Thatcher begins to fear that she really is descending into terminal hallucination, and Denis inexplicably turns hostile ("If I'm dead, who are you talking to?), the effect is jarringly unpleasant.

Despite all the historical embroidery, the movie is a weeper of an unabashed sort not seen in, as I say, many, many years. There's surely an audience for this sort of thing, and it may embrace The Iron Lady. Those uninclined to leaky sentimentalism, however, may wish the film's focus had remained entirely on the actual Margaret Thatcher. Like her or loathe her, we want to see more of this woman and her unbending convictions. At one point we watch her telling a clutch of spineless colleagues, "If you take the tough decisions, yes, people will hate you today—but thank you for generations." Or at least not soon forget you.

A Separation

I know I wasn't expecting one of the year's best movies to come from Iran, but here it is. In A Separation, writer-director Asghar Farhadi presents us with a minor domestic dispute—an argument, an angry shove—and keeps us riveted as it builds into a storm of desperate moral evasions that threaten to capsize several characters' lives.

The story is set in Tehran, but this is not the capital city of mad mullahs familiar from international news reports. Here, we are among the urban middle class, possibly the sort of people who still seethe with resentment over the country's rigged 2009 presidential election. Their homes are stocked with up-to-date dishwashers and widescreen TVs; their children are provided with musical instruments and English-language tutors; their family cars are very nice, and women drive them. Religion is a fundamental presence in their lives (there's a public telephone hotline to be called for doctrinal advice), but fanatical Islamism is nowhere in evidence. (Whether this is a necessary evasion on the director's part is an open question.)

The movie begins bluntly, with a squabbling married couple in a judge's chamber, making their separate cases directly to the camera. The wife, Simin (Iranian star Leila Hatami), wants the family to move abroad, for their 11-year-old daughter's sake, and has acquired a visa for this purpose. The husband, Nader (a compelling Peyman Maadi), refuses to go, since it would mean leaving behind his father, who is a part of the household and is afflicted with Alzheimer's; nor will he permit their child, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), to leave the country with her mother. And so Simin wants a divorce; but the judge, unswayed by her grounds for one, won't grant it.

Frustrated, Simin opts for a separation: she moves out of the family apartment and goes to live with her parents, perhaps to wait the situation out. But she also arranges for a domestic replacement—a devout younger woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat)—to help tend Nader's disoriented father. When Razieh discovers that her new duties involve washing the older man and helping change his clothes, she is distraught, since such intimate assistance violates a religious precept. Although she and her husband, an unemployed hothead named Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), are in serious financial difficulties, Razieh decides she must quit this new job.

There's no way to go into much further detail, since the story sustains our fascination through a series of unexpected revelations and ethical twists. Nader confronts the departing Razieh over some missing money. Razieh, who is pregnant, is injured. Later, at a hospital, it's discovered that her unborn child has died. Hodjat is enraged. Nader is charged with murder. A magistrate begins interrogating witnesses—an apartment-house neighbor, Termeh's tutor, Termeh herself—in an effort to determine who knew what and did what when. The characters writhe with guilt and anger and secret knowledge. Finally, at the end, one of them must make a pivotal decision.

The story has a particular resonance in its social context: These are people for whom commitment to truth is a profound obligation, no matter the consequences. But when the consequences matter in such crucial ways, there's a very modern temptation toward moral nuance. And as might not be the case with many in the West, it tears at their souls.     

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.