Monday, 30 January 2012

The Lady & The Iron Lady

Two female politicians, but two very different films

The Lady
Starting violently with the assassination of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, a Burmese revolutionary, the film skips out a chunk of the politician’s life, instead commencing when Suu Kyi returns to Burma to see her mother, dying in a hospital. Burma is in turmoil, with pro-democracy protests on the streets. Through Suu Kyi’s eyes (played by Michelle Yeoh), we see young protesters being brutally attacked, rounded up and killed by government forces.

A group of academics approach Suu Kyi, asking her to take up the pro-democracy mantle and follow her father’s lead. She starts out as a reluctant politician, something that is conveyed in the way she gestures to the public - a shy, uncertain wave. Meanwhile back in Oxford, England, Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris is looking after the children while lecturing in Asian studies at Oxford University. His world of academia and dusty tomes (albeit to do with East Asia) is a world away from the chaos unfurling in Burma.

Sadly, the film does not explore the tensions that Kyi must have faced in deciding whether to actively take up politics. Prior to going back to Burma she had settled in Oxford and was a housewife, looking after her two kids, Kim and Alexander. To go from mother to leader must have been a difficult decision. As a housewife she must have had a very close relationship with her two sons, and although we see them embracing at many points in the film, Yeoh does not convey the range of feelings experienced by Suu Kyi - maybe of guilt and sadness - at being separated from her children. Yeoh definitely looks the part of the diminutive, elegant Steel Orchid, but her performance as the pro-democracy leader is one-dimensional, more sycophantic than realistic.

Considering that the film focuses more on her relationship with her husband rather than Burma’s political landscape, Yeoh fails to present the leader as a human, with doubts, fears and personality flaws. Suu Kyi is portrayed as a martyr, but there must be more to her. At one point Kyi talks to Aris about her stubbornness and praises him for having put up with it, but we never see her stubbornness in the film or the strain Kyi’s decision must have had on her marriage.

The real toll of Kyi’s choice can be seen in the effect it has on her husband, played by David Thewlis, who dies of prostate cancer while separated from his wife. His marked physical and mental deterioration is heart-wrenching, and his patience and love for Suu Kyi as she pursues her political goal is inspiring. The love story in Suu Kyi’s life story is perfect for film, and although some will be disappointed that The Lady does not concentrate enough about Burmese politics (especially when it continues to feature in the news) the focus on Suu Kui and Aris’ love is a good means of easing people into Burmese history. However, Yeoh’s wooden performance lets the film down. I recently watched Suu Kyi attempt to speak French at a press conference. Her vivaciousness, confidence and feistiness is apparent. It’s a shame that Yeoh was not able to incorporate this into her performance.

The Iron Lady


From a woman who said she was stubborn, to a woman whose obstinacy is a central theme of the film. While Michelle Yeoh’s performance in The Lady lacks depth, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady is scarily convincing as Britain’s first female prime minister. This film has generated much attention and controversy- some people formed picket lines outside a cinema, some refused to see it, while some felt it was inspiring in showing the hurdles Margaret Thatcher had to overcome as a woman entering politics.

Essentially the film was an exploration of Thatcher’s dementia and loneliness, how she is now a fragile shell of the formidable woman she used to be. There’s a complete lack of engagement with the politics of the 1980s - why people were rioting, the closure of the mine pits and the introduction of poll tax - fine for an American audience but left an British audience leaving the cinema with a sense of dissatisfaction. While many critics have decried and lambasted the film’s disengagement with the consequences of Thatcher’s rule, I think this lack of context actually bolsters the characterisation of Margaret Thatcher, showing the world through her blinkered eyes. For Thatcher, everything was black and white- the opposition were not poor, hard-working people fighting against the destruction of their way of life, they were a riotous mob, engaging in violence at any opportunity, and the film shows them as shadowy figures pummelling her car door as she drives by. She seems genuinely unable to relate to other people, or realise the divisive effect her government had on society.

We see some attempt at explaining why Thatcher became who she was. There are flashbacks to her upbringing, the daughter of a shopkeeper in Grantham, whose principles revolved around self-sufficiency and hard work. We also see elements of humanity, in her love for Dennis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent) and her children, her intense loneliness when he dies and her sadness at the death of soldiers in the Falklands war. Meryl Streep is incredible at the former prime minister, perfecting Thatcher’s voice and manner.

Despite its faltering plot, The Iron Lady explores Thatcher’s position as one of the party’s leading female figures and how this, in addition to her background as a lower middle-class Northerner left her as an outsider. She managed to shake up the party, combining her steadfastness with a penchant for blue dresses, yet she always remained an outsider (eventually being ousted by her own party), and this is most evident in her vulnerable and demented state throughout the film. We see elements of madness in Margaret - her paranoia, obsessiveness and inability to be flexible. Streep portrays a woman who, despite being the epitome of the Conservative Party, was always an outsider.