Oh Maggie (and J. Edgar) I couldn’t have tried any more…

Awards season is upon us, and in terms of film awards, this year’s crop seems far inferior to the last few years. I’ve already made my feelings clear about the Hollywood wank films, and I think it’s a shame Harry Potter is unlikely to get anything beyond some special effects gongs, given a) Lord of the Rings took home a truckload, and it’s not like those films were actually that superior to the Potters, and b) in a fairly mediocre year for cinema, Deathly Hallows 2 was one of the highlights. But snobbery persists, I guess.

One of the safest ways to bag a nomination is to portray a real person, particularly if you’re a woman for some reason. One of the most hotly-tipped contenders is Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady.

I saw this and J. Edgar within a few days of each other – J. Edgar is Leonardo DiCaprio’s attempt at bagging an award for being a real person, and like Streep, he’s been lauded as the best thing in his film.

Both biopics have a striking amount in common. They each have a narrative sequence that flits between their protagonist’s elderly, declining years and their younger days and their career trajectory. Both take some liberties with the ‘truth’ (in Hoover’s case, this is partly because he himself was pretty cagey). Neither manages a particularly fulfilling account of two very significant people’s careers – huge events pass by in seconds – although this is always the problem of trying to cram huge lives into short films.

Both films have come under criticism for being too generous to their subjects and for being too disrespectful – that they’re receiving flak from both ends suggests they may well have some semblance of balance. I’d say that on that score they do the best they can given that both Hoover and Thatcher were divisive figures – to make films that were either entirely celebratory or entirely critical would alienate half their audience.

In The Iron Lady, for example, Thatcher comes across as a formidable woman who achieved status in a remarkable way and who was a very driven and ambitious leader – yet the incredibly negative impacts of her policies are also made clear, with all the members of ‘the public’ in the film shown as being dispossessed, angry and suffering. So I think that seems a reasonable reflection, although many argue that the focus is still on her, rather than her policies. This is true, but that’s a biopic for you. Same goes for the Hoover film, although that one is less coherent – or that may just be because I know a lot more about the Thatcher years being a) British and b) alive during them.

The Iron Lady chooses to use another actress, Alexandra Roach, as the young Thatcher, whilst Streep portrays her from just before becoming PM until the end of the film – and you just KNOW they were willing her to die so their film could include the end of her life – it really feels kind of ghoulish watching it as you can just sense the narrative urging to get to her death at the end. In J. Edgar, DiCaprio plays Hoover all the way from mid-twenties until his death. This is a risky strategy – DiCaprio may still just about look younger than his years but he doesn’t entirely convince as a twenty-something any longer. Both he and Streep excel when their protagonists are, funnily enough, around a similar age. Streep as PM Thatcher is very convincing, she really does do a decent impression of Maggie. (Judi Dench in J. Edgar, on the other hand, is totally phoning it in)

But in both film, the elderly scenes are a problem. In the case of The Iron Lady, this isn’t helped by you wondering how much of the whole dementia and ‘seeing Denis everywhere’ storyline is just made up – I bet a fair amount – and this takes up about 50% of the film, when it would have been better in much smaller doses. Jim Broadbent’s elderly make-up and hair are astonishingly good – and devastating, but the elderly Thatcher, unfortunately – or maybe appropriately – reminds me of this:

In J. Edgar, Naomi Watts’ ageing make-up isn’t that bad, but DiCaprio and Arnie Hammer (who is excellent as the younger Tolsen) both wear so much latex by the end that all I can think of is this:

and with Hammer, there’s also an air of this:

Essentially – they should have cast older actors and be done with it.

I’m interested in seeing The Descendants, which arrives on Friday, and Coriolanus, but all-in-all, this year’s awards-bait has a definite air of ticking-the-boxes in the hope of gongs rather than the industry crafting some interesting and challenging films. Could do better.

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