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Issue #1532      25 January 2012

Film reviews by Peter Mac

Albert Nobbs meets the Iron Lady

It says something about the US film industry that two of its most gifted actors are now starring in movies made in other countries. Highly focused on comedies and action epics, the US industry offers few dramatic roles of any depth – especially for older actors.

Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs.

Meryl Streep became familiar to Australian audiences many years ago for her portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain, and Glenn Close for her illuminating performance in the Australian film Paradise Road.

In both the current films the main characters struggle to break out of rigid “know your place” class constraints and to ascend to an “elevated” social status.

The performances of the two actors are equally brilliant. But there the similarities end. The Iron Lady depicts the political rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher in post-war Britain, while Albert Nobbs is a fictional account of a woman struggling to work her way out of grinding poverty in a posh Dublin hotel in about 1900.

Both these films are noteworthy, albeit for very different reasons, and both are well worth the price of a ticket.

The Iron Lady traces the life of Thatcher from her teenage youth during the World War II to her old age. It covers in great detail her struggle to get the British Conservative Party to accept her – or any woman, for that matter – as a candidate.

Even after she won a seat she was still patronised by many in the party. However, she gained the support of her more perceptive fellow MPs, including her friend the former Colditz prisoner of war Aerie Neave, who supported her for the leadership when it fell vacant. One of the film’s lighter moments, in which he grooms her to maximise her formidable image, is countered by the depiction of Thatcher’s narrow escape when Neave is assassinated by the IRA.

The film covers the main events in Thatcher’s career as British Prime Minister, but in many cases is maddeningly deficient on historical background. The war in the Falklands or Malvinas Islands, for example, is described vividly but does not explain that just prior to its commencement a geological survey had located significant deposits of oil in the Falklands region.

That issue resurfaced last week, with the current British Prime Minister rejecting a renewed claim to the islands by Argentina, and with mass media reports of the “recent” discovery of oil.

Thatcher’s ruthless determination to regain control of the island and its resources was illustrated by her instructions to sink the General Belgrano, pride of the Argentinean fleet, with the loss of more than 300 lives, even though Britain had virtually won the war already. Prince Andrew was serving on one of the Royal Navy vessels, and according to one report Thatcher gave instructions that if he was killed in battle, Buenos Aires was to be subjected to nuclear bombardment.

Apart from the assassination of Neave and the bombing of the Brighton hotel where Thatcher and her husband were staying, there is little explanation of the struggle for independence of Northern Ireland. Her wholehearted support for US President Reagan’s appalling plan to develop new “star wars” technology doesn’t rate a mention in The Iron Lady.

The film sees events almost entirely from the viewpoint of Thatcher and the Tories, certainly not from that of the miners or industrial workers who were brutally thrown out of work by her policies, and who are seen demonstrating and beating on her car windows as she sails into Parliament House.

Britain’s capitalists were delighted at the prospect of only having to pay the same amount as its poorest citizens, under Thatcher’s proposed new poll tax. However, her colleagues realised with horror that the monster they had helped to create was leading them to virtual destruction at the ballot box, because of her manic commitment to the grossly unjust new tax.

They also realised that her mental condition was deteriorating. The film depicts with great sensitivity the issue of dementia, exemplified by the anguish of Caroline Thatcher as her mother gradually succumbs.

Thatcher described herself as “one of the people”, and was able to recite in astonishing detail the current prices that shoppers had to pay for groceries. But this was a legacy from her early life as the daughter of shopkeepers. She was no sympathiser for working people, but rather a petit-bourgeois with a manic determination to become a fully-fledged bourgeois – and she over-achieved her ambition, entering the ranks of the aristocracy as Baroness Thatcher.

Despite its shortcomings the film provides a valuable insight into many aspects of Thatcher’s reign. It’s hard not to admire her for overcoming the barriers of gender and social background, but we should never forget that her policies endangered world peace, committed Britain to terrible warfare and inflicted great suffering on the working people of Britain and Northern Ireland. That, alas, is the bitter legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s period in office.

Albert Nobbs is the name adopted by a shy 14-year-old young orphan after she is brutally attacked by a group of youths. She withdraws within herself. However, she’s impoverished, and jobs for women are in short supply in 19th-century Ireland, so she takes a job as a waiter, disguised as a young man. Inscrutable and motionless while awaiting the call for table service, she finds she is, in effect, almost invisible, despite being in full public view.

Yearning for comfort and security, and for a life in which she doesn’t have to deny her gender, she stashes away her occasional tips with a view to eventually buying a tobacconist’s shop.

But it’s a long, long road, with many setbacks. Middle-aged and at last nearing her goal, she’s horrified when she’s ordered by the manipulative hotel owner to share her room – and her bed – with a house painter who’s staying the night. Despite her best endeavours she is betrayed by the heavy corset that brutally constricts her natural figure, and the painter learns her secret.

However, the painter is sympathetic, and later Albert learns to her amazement that “he” is a she, just like herself. They become friends and when she meets the painter’s partner she realises with great joy that it’s possible to enter into a deeply fulfilling relationship with someone of the same sex.

Alas, fate intervenes. Albert survives a typhoid epidemic, but the painter’s partner is struck down. The grieving painter rejects a suggestion that Albert might take her place, and Albert turns her attention to another friend, a chambermaid who is carrying the child of the feckless hotel janitor.

The janitor is intent on escaping to a new life in New York – on his own. Alas for Albert, the janitor overhears her suggestion to the girl that she should let the janitor go and accept Albert as a replacement. The results are both tragic and ironic.

Albert Nobbs is not without its failings – among them is the not inconsiderable stretch of the imagination required for the audience to believe that Close would ever be accepted as a man, even with a short back and sides, and no make-up.

Nevertheless, the movie is beautifully produced. Close’s depiction of the emotionally-imprisoned woman struggling to retain her inscrutable composure in a hostile environment is exquisite.

Dublin in 1900 might seem far-removed from Australia in 2012, but the film’s themes are entirely relevant to current reality. Working people are still involved in the struggle against exploitation. Same-sex marriage is still blocked by prejudice, religious conservatism and political opportunism. And the search for the ideal partnership? Well. that’ll go on forever, won’t it?  

Next article – “We salute the people’s struggles”

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