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On Movies: 'Carnage' is stronger than 'Iron Lady'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 12, 2012 - Meryl Streep gives an extraordinary performance as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," but the central structural premise of the biographical film is a strange and ultimately unfortunate one that undermines the work of a great actor.

As the movie begins, former British prime minister Thatcher is in her 80s and slipping into dementia. She holds long conversations with the ghost of her long-dead husband (Jim Broadbent), and her mind keeps slipping into the past. Her visions of the past, going back to her childhood working in the family grocery store, are strung together in chronological order by screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd to tell superficially the story of one of the most powerful women of the 20th century.

The episodes from Thatcher's life are presented from her (deluded?) point of view, without focus and context. The film just strings together a series of events, sketchily familiar to a non-Brit who remembers the 1980s -- the coal-miner's strike, the Falklands war, the IRA bombings, riots in the streets protesting Thatcher's budget-paring, a dance with Ronald Reagan, Thatcher's insistence that the poor should pay taxes at the same rate as the rich, vituperation in the halls of Parliament, rage in the chambers of the cabinet.

But all these events are just thrown on the screen, one after the other, without sufficient background or explanation -- we get no sense of the times Thatcher lived in. The phrase "Thatcher's England" is still used to define an era. In an historical context, what did it mean? The question is never really answered.

We do get a disquieting portrait of a old woman whose mind is slipping away, but I'm not sure what that has to do with what was important or interesting or unusual or inspiring or infuriating about Margaret Thatcher.

Meryl Streep does a remarkable job of imitating Thatcher but to no real point. To make the mental meanderings of senility the backbone of a biographical narrative, unless you are making an almost unbearably dark comedy, is cruel idiocy. Is it any wonder that "The Iron Lady" is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?


When it opened on Broadway in 2009, the play "God of Carnage" was shrewdly described by the critic for the New York Times as "poised somewhere in between" Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners."

Those boundaries of comparison also work for "Carnage," Roman Polanski's fleet new movie version of the play. The film is part black comedy and part sit-com, but it also owes something to classic screwball comedies, with their quick, sharply pointed dialogue and sudden reversals, and even a bit to the physical and verbal farce of the Marx Brothers.

The film opens in a park, where we are shown from a distance some sort of tussle between boys. Then the scene shifts to a spacious, well-furnished New York apartment, where two affluent couples have met to hash out the consequences of the tussle. The Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) own the apartment. Their son needs some dental work as a result of being struck with a stick by the son of the Cowans (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet).

The movie stays claustrophobically in the high-rise apartment and in the hallway outside for virtually the rest of the story as the two couples keep trying, or pretending to try, to act like civilized adults. They can't. The four will make nice for a moment or two and then somebody will get angry at something somebody else has said and the anger becomes contagious and the screaming begins. Eventually, alcohol is served, and things get worse. We begin to fear that Polanski is going to take the title literally.

At several points in the superbly acted movie the two couples seem to reach an agreement on major issues (How much do the Cowans owe for the dental work? Should the Cowan boy apologize?), only to be drawn back into argument as someone makes an antagonistic parting remark. The Cowans will reach the hallway, tantalizingly close to ending the four-way verbal brawl, when they are, at the very last minute, sucked back into the apartment by further bickering. At one point, the Cowans actually enter the elevator, but emerge in a few seconds to resume the battle. These scenes of near escape are increasingly frustrating, and, as we come to anticipate them, increasingly funny. They become a form of slapstick.

The two key characters, both somewhat stereotypical, are strenuously liberal Penelope Longstreet (Foster), a do-gooder who is so ragingly ready to do battle with political incorrectness that her head seems on the point of explosion, and supremely arrogant Alan Cowan (Waltz), a ruthless corporate lawyer whose contempt for the other people in the room is symbolized by his constant use of his cell phone.

"Carnage" has been criticized for belaboring the obvious, and for dealing in cultural stereotypes. Well, the film is not subtle, and it can be superficial. It does not so much illuminate the human condition as have wicked fun with a familiar aspect of it, the notion that, in an evolutionary sense, we really can't rise above our raising. Bottom line, as corporate lawyer Alan Cowan might say, it's funny. Nasty and funny.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement