Streep becomes Maggie Thatcher

The title, "The Iron Lady," suggests that this just-released film is a biopic about one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher, who was the only woman ever to be prime minister of Britain. In reality, it is about something far more interesting, though director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan seem conflicted about which story they wanted to tell.

The narrative opens with an elderly, long-retired Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) seated at a breakfast table sharing toast and boiled eggs with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). She chides him, in a comfortable, bossy way, to use less butter on his toast and he responds with good cheer, commenting that he likes butter. It is an intimate and touching moment, so very typical of two people who have lived most of their lives together. And it is only when an assistant arrives that it's clear that Denis is not there. Incrementally, we realize that Thatcher is slipping into dementia against which she struggles with all the will she can summon.

Because Thatcher finds the memories of her youth and later national politics more real than the present, vignettes in the form of flashbacks are delivered from her point of view almost as a newsreel — the Falkland Islands war with Argentina; the union strikes; her belief in austerity as a response to England's economic crisis; her ability to prevail in a chauvinistic, all-male world; the lethal bombings by the IRA.

Remarkable as is her ability to prevail during all of these calamities, what the film focuses on is not her improbable success in a life of politics, but the inevitability of a life winding its way toward a conclusion. She is, in the end, not the prime minister, but a woman surprisingly alone, now in her dotage, the lines that once moored her growing ever more tenuous.

Increasingly, she finds surcease in long conversations with Denis, comforted yet fearful by the meaning of his presence as they sit in bed, he reading the paper, she a book, then turning in the late of night to discover that he is gone.

More iron is required to face a life that is slipping away than what was required to face a hostile Parliament. And therein is the essence of "The Iron Lady." It is a universal experience, growing old, and dementia a cruel and harsh betrayal that cannot be undone or even forgiven.

The brilliance of Streep's performance is not as Margaret Thatcher, the politician, though she is remarkable. It is in how she loses herself so perfectly in the character of an elderly woman, bringing to bear countless gestures and mannerisms and inflections that demonstrate a talent that is near genius. Recall: "Out of Africa," "Sophie's Choice," "Doubt," "Julie & Julia," "Mamma Mia."

Streep's character study, a tutorial in acting, really, makes "The Iron Lady" so very much worth seeing.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," buoyed by a fine cast, has all the patina of a must-see film. Adapted from the novel by John LeCarre', since 1961 a journeyman writer of novels about espionage who is writing still, at 80.

But here's the problem with Le Carre', and why his books are not easily adapted to the screen: even with endless pages to clarify and elucidate, the reader, like the audience in "Tinker," cannot escape his convoluted, obscure and labyrinthine plots. Each tale requires work. Or perhaps the Cold War machinations and intrigue of the 1960s and 1970s, for contemporary moviegoers, have become almost passé.

The film is stuffed with pasty men in wet raincoats, spending months rifling through files, engaging in stilted conversations, absent any attempt at friendship, behaving as if treachery was not just the purview of the Soviets but a shroud they all don together.

Trying to follow "Tinker" soon becomes ponderous, the narrative filled with non sequiturs, flashbacks with no evident purpose, conversations that are enigmatic to the point of being meaningless. All seems strangely barren, devoid of emotion, as if all caring had been leached from their souls, the stakes seemingly routine, each man holding back a prolonged yawn.

Sure, they're in the hunt for a mole, a double agent that their Control (John Hurt) is convinced exists. And they are told it is one of five highly placed operatives. But ultimately, the absence of intensity undermines the willingness of the audience to stay in the hunt with George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who is leading the investigation.

Ultimately, despite a fine performance by Oldamn, it all comes down to the question: What's the point? At the outset, "Tinker" feels like a movie that should be engaging easy to like. Surprisingly, it isn't.

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