Tag: Nicholas Farrell

Amazing Grace (2006)

Ioan Gruffudd in full flight in the conventional but charming Amazing Grace

Director: Michael Apted

Cast: Ioan Gruffudd (William Wilberforce), Romola Garai (Barbara Spooner), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Pitt the Younger), Ciaran Hinds (Banastre Tarleton), Albert Finney (John Newton), Michael Gambon (Charles James Fox), Rufus Sewell (Thomas Clarkson), Youssou N’Dour (Olaudah Equiano), Toby Jones (Duke of Clarence), Nicholas Farrell (Henry Thornton), Sylvestra Le Touzel (Marianne Thornton), Stephen Campbell Moore (James Stephen), Bill Paterson (Heny Dundas), Jeremy Swift (Richard)

From 1782 to 1807 William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) fought a long – sometimes lonely – campaign to end the slave trade (and eventually slavery – the film confuses the two, with slavery continuing in much of the Empire for over twenty more years) in the British Empire. During that time, he competed with vested interests, parliamentary rivals and accusations of being a radical at a time when Britain was at war with Revolutionary France.

Michael Apted’s old-fashioned film covers this, hitting every beat you would expect for a biographical drama. It uses a traditional framing device of starting in the middle of the story: Wilberforce in 1797, depressed, hooked on laudanum and out of hope, revitalised by meeting Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) who will become his wife. This makes for a perfect narrative tool as it means she can ask him questions like “tell me what happened” which serves as a neat entrée into a whole host of flashbacks sketching out in the swiftest means possible the history of abolitionism.

Amazing Grace could have been made in the 1930s, so closely does it hue to the classic rules of biopics. It’s practically a structural brother to The Life of Emile Zola, a hagiographical portrait of an (admittedly outstanding) man which shows the expected arc of moral awakening, early success, tricky mid-point, the sad years, getting the band back together for one final big push ending in friends and foes alike coming together to hail his accomplishments. It’s all threaded together with a script that carefully moves through every event, simplifies history down and sometimes wears its research rather heavily.

You can’t argue that it isn’t well-meaning and heartfelt, but its simplicity (and the careful traditionalism of its shooting) makes it look more like a well-made TV special than an actual movie. But if you are a sucker for such things, as I am, it has more than enough to engage you. It also makes a compelling case about the horrors of the slavery and allows a few moments of spotlight to fall on former slave turned abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (well played by Youssou N’Dour). It certainly has its heart in the right place, its passionate liberalism and sense of moral outrage very clear.

Gruffudd – his skill for playing reluctant moral authority and duty honed from playing Hornblower – is good as Wilberforce, his obvious investment in the subject matter clear. Garai doesn’t have much to do other than tee up flashbacks, but does it with charm. Many of the rest veer on the side of fruity: Hinds and Jones scowl effectively as slave-owning senior lords (for some reason they sit in the House of Commons; Jones is even playing a Duke for goodness sake!). Gambon twinkles as only he can as Charles James Fox. Finney hams up lustily as the blind John Newton. Best of all though are Sewell as an eccentric Thomas Clarkson and Benedict Cumberbatch in an early sign of star-quality as the morally divided, reserved but decent Pitt the Younger.

It all comes together into something that seems tailor-made for Sunday afternoons. Nothing wrong with that – and not every film needs to reinvent the wheel – and since it wears its heart so openly on its sleeve, you can’t help feeling warmth towards it. It’s a Spark notes look at history – and glosses over the fact that slavery itself continued for decades – but as hagiography it’s endearing and as a feel-good biopic it succeeds at what it sets out to do.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

Christopher Lambert is the lord of the apes in dull Tarzan epic Greystoke

Director: Hugh Hudson

Cast: Christopher Lambert (John Clayton), Ralph Richardson (Earl of Greystroke), Ian Holm (Capitaine Fyllieppe d’Arnot), James Fox (Lord Charles Esker), Andie MacDowell (Jane Porter), Cheryl Campbell (Lady Clayton), Ian Charleson (Jeffson Brown), Nigel Davenport (Major Jack Downing), Nicholas Farrell (Sir Hugh Belcher), Paul Geoffrey (John Clayton Snr), Richard Griffiths (Captain Billings), Hilton McRae (Willy), David Suchet (Buller), John Wells (Sir Evelyn Blount)

For his follow-up to Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson settled on this curious mess: part heavy-handed exploration of class and the brutality of man, part picturesque jungle picture with people in ape costumes. If anyone remembers Greystroke today, it’s for an interesting bit of trivia: original director and writer Robert Towne was so annoyed at being removed from the project, he used his dog’s name as his screenwriting credit. When the Oscar nominations were announced, this pooch became the first four-legged Oscar nominee. Strangely fitting for a film about the nobility of animals.

The film is a “real life” version of the Tarzan story. What this basically means is that it is dry and boring with a ponderous self-important message about how the real animal is in man (or something like that). It also of course means that the word “Tarzan” isn’t used except in the title (presumably so that audiences could be lured into the cinema). Anyway, after his parents are shipwrecked off the jungle coast, and die after young John Clayton’s (Christopher Lambert) birth, he is raised by gorillas and becomes one of the leaders of the pack. When a troupe of gung-ho explorers are slaughtered by natives, the only survivor is Belgian Fyllieppe d’Arnot (Ian Holm). Rescued by John, d’Arnot teaches him language and takes him home to the estate of his grandfather the Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson), who is desperate for an heir. But can John adjust to the jungle of the modern world?

So Greystoke is well filmed, looks good and has a couple of decent performances in it. But it’s a dull mess as a film. Watching it you suspect a lot of the runtime ended up on the cutting room floor. There are sudden time jumps. Characters appear and disappear, many serving no real purpose. The film drifts towards a conclusion that neither seems enlightening nor serves any real cathartic summation of what the film might be about. There are many, many lovely shots of the jungle and Scottish countryside, but we never really end up caring about any of the characters within it.

The film is thematically a mess from start to finish. It seems to be making a point about John being totally unsuited, by his upbringing, to adjusting to the world of man. But it never really gives a proper voice to John himself. Of course he’s only just learning language, but even without that you never really feel like you begin to understand him, or get a sense of half-remembered human traits emerging from his ape upbringing. Basically you don’t get a sense of conflict within him as to whether he should stay or go. Without that conflict, there isn’t really much interest in watching him work out the answer.

This is despite the fact the Christopher Lambert is actually pretty good as John Clayton. The role plays to his strengths: it’s highly physical (not just in the acts of athleticism but also in its half-man, half-ape physicality). Lambert also has this rather fine other-worldly quality that constantly leaves him looking a bit lost and vulnerable. The part may be underwritten but he is certainly doing his very best here, and he really does a brilliant job of playing an ape trapped in man’s body.

It’s a shame that the film takes so long to get going that he doesn’t really appear for the first half an hour or so. Instead we get a lot of ape-based action in the forest – and probably too much of his parents. Later in the film, the camera makes a point of returning two or three times to a large painting of Cheryl Campbell as John’s mother – but the film never suggests any link at all between these two characters. A lot of time is wasted setting up the parents’ voyage, while at the same time no time is spent on establishing any emotional link between the Claytons and their son.

Far more time is spent on the apes – which I suppose is the point of a film that wants to celebrate the purity of the world of animals over the corruption of man. Rick Baker’s ape make-up is pretty impressive for the time – and works really well in longshot – but in close-up is all too obviously a series of performers in masks. There is a sense of their natures, but not of them as dangerous or wild animals. In fact the film goes overboard in humanising them – even to the extent of giving them their own language of grunts and groans.

The ape stuff goes on too long – and then means the return to civilisation seems rushed and unclear. Ian Holm is excellent as d’Arnot, the bridge between the two worlds, and his fatherly love for John works extremely well. But the film makes no attempt to tackle the questions it raises of John dealing with his split animal-human relationship. Instead the film loads the decks by making almost every human character – epitomised by James Fox’s flat performance as Jane’s toff fiancée – a heartless uncaring moron.

Ah yes Jane. Played with an openness by Andie MacDowell, she’s dubbed in a painfully obvious way by an uncredited Glenn Close. This is another underwhelming relationship that seems skimmed over – one moment they have just met, the next they seem on the verge of a great love. It’s as rushed and slapdash as the introduction of a mentally handicapped servant – of course, with his childish outlook, he is closer to John than anyone could be – who literally appears out of nowhere.

The film was also Ralph Richardson’s final role – he died shortly after completing it – and his barmy Earl of Greystroke (part lonely old man, part semi-senile eccentric) does lift the film with a certain energy (he was posthumously Oscar nominated). But it’s an easy role for Richardson – and in fact his eccentric, hard-to-define energy kind of sums up the whole messy film pretty well. His character’s death is the final nail in its interest, his eccentric energy sorely missed.

The most damaging thing about Greystoke is it is dull and obvious. Pretty scenery and decent performances can only cover so much when the plot is empty and predictable. The film feels cut down absurdly – half the cast of Chariots appear in roles so tiny you wonder why they bothered – and by the time the film drifts towards its conclusion you’ll probably have stopped caring about what it was all about in the first place. It tries to ask questions about man’s nature, but it doesn’t even seem to notice it never answers them. A poor film.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Celebrations abound in triumphant running flick Chariots of Fire

Director: Hugh Hudson

Cast: Ben Cross (Harold Abrahams), Ian Charleson (Eric Liddell), Nicholas Farrell (Aubrey Montague), Nigel Havers (Lord Andrew Linsley), Ian Holm (Sam Mussabini), John Gielgud (Master of Trinity), Lindsay Anderson (Master of Caius), Cheryl Campbell (Jennie Liddell), Alice Krige (Sybil Gordon), Struan Rodger (Sandy McGrath), Nigel Davenpot (Lord Birkenhead), Patrick Magee (Lord Carogan), David Yelland (Prince of Wales), Peter Egan (Duke of Sutherland), Daniel Gerroll (Henry Stallard), Dennis Christopher (Charley Paddock), Brad Davis (Jackson Scholz)

Dun-da-da-da da-da dun-da-da-Da-Da DA. Hum that theme tune and you know straight away what film it is: you can’t resist the temptation to mime out running (in slow motion of course), arms swinging gracefully from side-to-side. There aren’t many more movies with more iconic, instantly recognisable themes than Chariots of Fire

If there is one thing everyone remembers, it’s the young athletes running along the beaches of St. Andrews, spray flying up from their bare feet. Nicholas Farrell sprinting with upper-class determination. Nigel Havers wiping spray from his face with glee. Ian Charleson full of serene joy. Ben Cross with fixed, rigid focus. The opening of Chariots is a master-class in quickly established character, tone, mood and era. The cross-fade from the funeral oration from an ageing Nigel Havers into this slow-motion, halcyon-days reflection tells you we are in the land of memory – and sets right up for the feel-good triumph the film becomes.

The film follows the key athletes of the British 1924 Olympics team. Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is a second-generation Jewish grammar-school boy who runs to prove he belongs and can excel. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a Presbyterian Scot, who runs to celebrate God and whose religion prevents him running in a vital Sunday qualifying heat. Both characters are, in their own ways, outsiders – and their underdog status makes them perfect to root for in this extremely well-made crowd pleaser.

Chariots is often seen as a slightly undeserving Oscar-winner. But that’s to overlook the panache it’s made with and how emotionally uplifting and engaging it is. Hugh Hudson had never directed a film before this one. His background was in commercials and he brings many of the strengths of that background to Chariots. The film is wonderfully assembled, a perfect combination of montage, cross-cutting, longer tracking shots and cross-fading. 

That opening scene tells you a lot with its swift economy. But he handles others just as well: Abrahams’ 100m winning race is played first in real time, then again, cross-cut with Abrahams’ reaction to victory. The first moment is one of triumph, but the immediate repeat allows an opportunity for the viewer to understand the mixed feelings that achieving everything you aimed for can bring. Abrahams’ slightly shocked, underpowered reaction gives the slow-motion repeat of the race a hazy, post-match analysis feel – as if Abrahams is still running the race in his mind. As if he knows that his whole life was building to that one moment, and now he needs to find a new focus.

Hudson’s mastery of moments like this is impressive. Sequences are fabulously assembled. The famous “one minute” dash around the Trinity court (actually Eton) is brilliant, and a great example of how the film sells tent-pole moments. It also masters quieter character moments. One of its stand-out moments simply allows Abrahams’ coach Mussabini (a scene-stealing Ian Holm) to react to Abrahams win (a victory he has not seen due to being banned from the stadium) by quietly rising to attention, then sitting on his bed, gleefully punching through his hat and quietly whispering “my son”. Other scenes – such as those where Abrahams confronts quiet anti-Semitism from Cambridge scholars (nice bitchy cameos from John Gielgud and famed director Lindsay Anderson), or Liddell is quietly pressured into running on Sunday – simmer with good acting and restrained direction.

It’s these scenes that really make the film work. Ben Cross is superb as a chippy, frustrated Abrahams who feels he must justify his place in England’s oppressive class system. He’s constantly glowering, tense and uncertain – but Cross mixes this with a boyish charm, a gentleness (most notably in his shy romance with an unrecognisable Alice Krige) – and a warmth and genuineness that he shows with friends. Nicholas Farrell’s boyish Aubrey Montague (a love-struck best friend if ever I saw one!) helps a lot here – if someone as obviously nice as him likes Abrahams, then gosh darn it we should as well.

Ian Charleson is equally impressive as the devout, charming but coolly determined Eric Liddell who has decided his course in life and nothing is going to shake him from it. The film has a refreshingly considerate view of Liddell’s Christianity – and, furthermore, praises him for sticking to his devout principles. Charleson wrote many of his speeches himself, and he brings a charming honesty to his character. How can you not love this guy? He’s the perfect ambassador for the Church.

The film tackles plenty of clashes for Liddell which sizzle in a quiet way. Cheryl Campbell is very good as his partly proud, partly concerned sister, worried that his missionary work is being sacrificed for his running. His confrontation with the Olympic committee over his crucial decision not to run – is there any other film where not working on a Sunday is the dramatic centre piece? – is nicely underplayed. It’s clear that they (including a very good Nigel Davenport as an understanding Chair) want him to run, and it’s equally clear Liddell is determined he won’t.

It’s the moments like this that make the film so triumphantly feel-good. Both Abrahams and Liddell are at heart immensely likeable, the upper classes and elites who frown at them in their way rather boo-able. The running scenes are great (despite the sweetly dated lack of grace!), the film really capturing the exhilarating energy of pushing yourself to the limit. Watching Abrahams training under the expert eyes of Mussabini (worth repeating again that Holm is the heart of this film, as the fatherly, wise trainer struggling against prejudice against both Italians and professionalism), or Liddell winning from behind after being pushed over in a race are simply hugely uplifting.

Strangely the one thing that does seem a little odd today is the Vangelis score. Yes the Chariots march is outstanding – but the 80s electronic beat to the rest of the score now sounds very dated. Yes it is interesting to overlay (then) modern music over a period piece – but nothing dates quicker than music (except perhaps haircuts) and that is the case here. It sounds odd and jarring with the action at times – but then that main theme is so brilliant (but also the most classical of Vangelis’ compositions) that it still sort of works.

The sad thing is that Chariots didn’t lead to great new things for most involved. When he won the Oscar for best original screenplay, Colin Welland famously cried “the British are coming!”. Sadly he wasn’t really right. Within four years two flop films had all but ended Hudson’s career. Producer David Puttnam took over Columbia Pictures, only to be dismissed within a year after disastrous results. Many of the stars of the film never got the breaks this film promised (Charleson died tragically young – the first major star in England to openly acknowledge his cause of death as AIDS). Even the star Americans introduced to play the yank athletes (Brad Davis and Dennis Christopher) never had a hit film again. As David Thomson put it, within ten years of all the major players only Ian Holm “had any professional credibility left”.

But Chariots is still a bit of lightening caught in a bottle. A strange idea to spin an entire film out of an event lasting less than 10 seconds, but which married up so well with universal themes of class and struggle. It knows exactly what it is, and exactly what it is doing. It really worked then and it really works now. It’s not pretending to be high art, or to really make profound statements – just to entertain. And it really does. Fetch your running shoes and start that Vangelis theme!

Othello (1995)

Laurence Fishburne falls foul of Kenneth Branagh’s schemes in this traditional but decent Othello adaptation

Director: Oliver Parker

Cast: Laurence Fishburne (Othello), Irène Jacob (Desdemona), Kenneth Branagh (Iago), Nathaniel Parker (Cassio), Michael Maloney (Roderigo), Anna Patrick (Emilia), Nicholas Farrell (Montano), Indra Ové (Bianca), Michael Sheen (Lodovico), Gabriele Ferzetti (Duke of Venice), Pierre Vaneck (Brabantio)

Othello is perhaps one of the most famous tales of betrayal and jealousy ever written. And yet Shakespeare’s tale of the noble general who descends into murder when convinced by his trusted ensign Iago that his wife is unfaithful, hasn’t often been made into a film. This is probably because its lead role requires a black actor and – for depressing historical reasons – most films aren’t considered good investments without a famous white actor in the lead (of course this has also been the case on stage). So we’ve had blacked-up performances from Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins – but this was the first proper adaptation of the play with a black actor in the lead role.

As the two leads, Laurence Fishburne and Irène Jacob are a mixed bag. Fishbourne has all the dignity and statue of the great general, and he brings a muscular physicality to the role which really works. He has a wonderful timbre to his voice and he handles the disintegration very well. He does sometimes feel a little hidebound by the language – treating the dialogue with a little too much reverence – but he’s the most believable Moorish general (for many reasons…) you’ve seen on screen so far. Jacob has greater difficulties – although many of these I think are due to this being her first film in English (talk about jumping in at the deep end) – and attempts to make Desdemona a free-spirit don’t really work that well.

Oliver Parker claimed he wanted to cast actors who weren’t associated with Shakespeare. Bizarre then that his cast is rounded out by Kenneth Branagh, the actor perhaps more associated with Shakespeare than anyone else alive. But then I guess when you can get Branagh in your movie, you aren’t going to say no. And it’s great he did, because this might just be one of Branagh’s finest Shakespearean performances: as if not also directing the thing (although many people mistakenly think he did!) freed him up to just focus on his performance. (It’s unfortunate for the other two leads that Branagh’s skill with both Shakespearean dialogue and performing it for the movies also serves to point up Fishburne’s more traditional take and Jacob’s discomfort.)

His Iago is superb, and he plays the part just right, never tipping the wink during his scenes with various characters, but playing Iago totally straight and completely genuine. He appears to be a decent, kind, lovely guy to everyone: it’s only in those asides to the camera that we see his real self, although even here he treats us with just as much charm. His Iago is the sort of guy you’d go for a drink with – and then be shocked to hear he had smilingly bad mouthed you to all your friends. Branagh also adds a homosexual undertone to the film, his Iago having incredibly mixed, repressed feelings about Othello: he seems genuinely moved when Othello makes him his lieutenant and a half twitch of regret crosses his face when the general dies.

Not that it stops him from being a bastard the rest of the time – and Parker does a very neat line in bringing the pivotal seduction of Othello to life on camera. On stage, Iago’s entrapment of Othello is a single, poison-dripping conversation – here, taking advantage of what you can do with film and editing, Parker spreads it over three locations: first a training-ground skirmish outside (where Othello bests Iago), then a sort of armoury changing room (where the outside is still visible), then finally a dungeon. As each lie gets more seductive, so Othello is literally dragged deeper and deeper into the castle. Then we get a neat flip: when he’s fully sold on Desdemona’s treachery, and begins raging and storming, we end up on huge open beaches or castle battlements, as if Othello has been reborn into a larger, refocused world.

This device smoothe out one of the problems with the original play – rather than Iago turning Othello against his supposedly beloved wife during one chat, the cuts from location to location (and different times of day) give the impression of a prolonged disintegration. Othello begins to get the first lines of each section, giving the impression that he has been dwelling on these lies in the interim, and that he is now the one bringing the subject back up, unable to stop prodding at it. It’s makes for a more convincing (and modern) psychological portrait of the corrosive triumph of jealousy than can be achieved in a traditional stage version.

The film has moments of invention – at one point Iago pours poison into Roderigo’s ear while they lie under a wagon where a couple are noisily rutting – and it does some really interesting stuff as mentioned with the “seduction” of Othello. Parker also throws in some expected cinematic tricks – so we get moments of Othello fantasising over Cassio and Desdemona together. But Parker’s not the most unique or challenging director, and he mostly shoots the film with a traditional straight forwardness, using a very traditional setting and editing style.

The film has other problems, too. Othello and Desdemona don’t have much chemistry between them, and Fishburne’s emotionally distant performance makes Othello harder to root for. Maybe this is just Branagh unbalancing the film – his Iago is so compelling, it throws off the film. Parker tries to make Desdemona a stronger character, but this doesn’t always work. Jacob’s slightly awkward tension with Shakespeare is part of this, but we also get the confusion of a Desdemona who fights for her life at the film’s conclusion and then strokes her husband’s head with affection as she dies.

Other performances don’t quite work. Michael Maloney is too overblown as Roderigo – though this Shakespearean wimp does at least get to genuinely threaten Iago and is slightly more convincing for the series of fights Iago puts him up to. Between them, the script editor and Anna Patrick turn Emilia, one of the play’s most intriguing characters, into a blank – she barely has a line in the first hour, and those she does have are delivered pretty blandly. Nathaniel Parker, though, is pretty good as Cassio (incidentally, Parker is of course the director’s brother, and Anna Patrick is the director’s sister-in-law – it’s a home movie!).

The main problem? As the play heats up to the final confrontations, the film slows right down. It’s hard to believe – as we enter Act 5 of the play – that there could still be half an hour of the film left, so snappy have the first four acts been. But the film dawdles and drags over the finishing line – and all the chase scenes of a desperately fleeing Iago can’t save it. For a film which has trimmed the play quite successfully into something sleek and fast-paced, it’s a shame that it drops all this for a wordy and over-played final half hour.

Of course Parker throws in decent moments: I like Cassio slipping Othello the knife he’ll use to kill himself. I really like Iago crawling his way on the bed loaded with dead characters, as if to try and force himself back into their story. The symbolism has been overplayed – and the image of two bodies buried at sea, water trails entwining, has been signposted far too often earlier – but these small moments work, even while the rest of the film’s conclusion drags. And maybe that’s because you don’t really care that much about Othello – he’s never seemed like a character easy to empathise with. And without that, the film can never completely work.

The Iron Lady (2011)

Meryl Streep impersonates the Iron Lady to excellent effect in this otherwise bland and forgettable, compromised mess of a picture

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Cast: Meryl Streep (Margaret Thatcher), Jim Broadbent (Denis Thatcher), Olivia Colman (Carol Thatcher), Roger Allam (Gordon Reece), Nicholas Farrell (Airey Neave), Iain Glen (Alfred Roberts), Richard E. Grant (Michael Heseltine), Anthony Head (Sir Geoffrey Howe), Harry Lloyd (Young Denis Thatcher), Michael Pennington (Michael Foot), Alexandra Roach (Young Margaret Thatcher), John Sessions (Edward Heath)

In British politics has there been a figure as controversial as Margaret Thatcher? A domineering Prime Minister who reshaped the country (for better or worse depending on who you speak to), crafting a legacy in the UK’s politics, economy and society that we will continue to feel for the foreseeable future, she’s possibly one of the most important figures in our history. It’s a life rich for a proper biographical treatment; instead, it gets this film.

The film’s framing device is focused on the ageing Thatcher (Meryl Streep), now dealing with onset dementia and having detailed conversations with her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). Cared for by her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), she reflects on her political career and the sacrifices she made personally to achieve these. Woven in and out of this are Thatcher’s increasingly disjointed memories of her political career.

The most surprising thing about this film is how little it actually wants to engage with Thatcherism itself. Perhaps aware that (certainly in the UK) Thatcher remains an incredibly divisive figure, the film’s focus is actually her own struggles with grief and approaching dementia. Her career as PM is relegated to a series of flashbacks and short scenes, which fill probably little more than 20-30 minutes of the runtime, shot and spliced together as a mixture of deliberately subjective memories and fevered half-dreams. Can you imagine a film about Thatcher where Arthur Scargill and the miners’ strike doesn’t merit a mention? You don’t need to: thanks to The Iron Lady it now exists. 

Perhaps Thatcher’s politics were considered to “unlikeable” – certainly, one imagines, by its writer and director – to be something to craft a film around, so it was thought better to brush them gently under the table. Instead the focus is to make Thatcher as sympathetic as possible to a viewer who didn’t share her politics, by concentrating on her struggles against sexism in the 1950s and her struggles with age late on. Why not accept what Thatcher stood for and make a film (for better or worse) about that? Perhaps more material on her actual achievements in office were shot and cut (the film does have a very short run time and underuses its ace supporting cast), but the whole film feels fatally compromised – which is more than a little ironic since it is about a woman famous for her lack of compromise.

In fact it’s rather hard to escape the view that Roger Ebert put forward: “few people were neutral in their feelings about [Thatcher], except the makers of this picture”. It’s a film with no real interest in either politics or history, the two things that defined Thatcher’s entire life. And as if to flag up the mediocre nature of the material they’ve chosen, it’s then interspersed with too-brief cuts to more interesting episodes from Thatcher’s life than those we are watching. Only when the older Thatcher hosts a dinner party and launches into a blistering sudden condemnation of Al-Qaeda and support of military action against terrorism (followed by her casual disregard of a hero-worshipping acolyte) do we ever get a sense of finding out something about her, or of seeing her personality brought to life.

The film’s saving grace is of course Meryl Streep’s terrific impersonation of Thatcher. I call it impersonation as the film so strenuously avoids delving into the events and opinions that shaped Thatcher that Streep gets very little opportunity to really develop a character we can understand, or to present an insight into her. Her performance as the older Thatcher – losing control of her mannerisms, deteriorating over the course of the film – is impressive in its technical accomplishment, but that’s largely what it remains. As the film doesn’t allow us to really know Thatcher, and doesn’t work with what defines her, it largely fails to move us when we see her weak and alone. So for all the accomplishment of Streep’s work, I couldn’t say this was a truly great performance – certainly of no comparison to, say, Day-Lewis as Lincoln or Robert Hardy as Churchill. I’d even say Andrea Riseborough’s performance in TV’s The Long Walk to Finchley told us more about the sort of person Thatcher was than Streep does here.

Despite most of the rest of the cast being under-used though, there are some good performances. Jim Broadbent is very good as Denis Thatcher, although again his performance is partly a ghostly collection of mannerisms and excellent complementary acting. However the chemistry between he and Streep is magnificent and accounts for many of the film’s finest moments. Olivia Colman does sterling work under a bizarre fake nose as a no-nonsense Carol Thatcher. From the all-star cast of British actors, Roger Allam stands out as image-consultant Gordon Reece and Nicholas Farrell is superbly calm, cool and authoritative as Airey Neave. Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd are excellent impersonating younger Thatchers.

The Iron Lady could have been a marvellous, in-depth study of the politics of the 1980s, and a brilliant deconstruction and discussion of an era that still shapes our views of Britain today. However, it wavers instead into turning a woman defined by her public role and views into a domestic character, and brings no insight to the telling of it. By running scared of Thatcher’s politics altogether, it creates a film which makes it hard to tell why we should be making a fuss about her at all – making it neither interesting to those who know who Thatcher is, nor likely to spark interest in those who have never heard of her.