Silent masterpiece to make loud Oscar noise

Jean Dujardin in The Artist
Jean Dujardin in The Artist

THE idea that one of the hottest prospects for this year’s Academy Awards is a black and white French silent movie might sound bizarre.

And as you begin to watch Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (Cert U) with its visual histrionics and dialogue caption cards you do begin to wonder how you’re going to stand it for the duration of a feature film. And then, before you know it, you are utterly absorbed.

Gallic comedy actor Jean Dujardin is George Valentin, charismatic star of silent movie adventures whose dashing looks and a radiant smile are all the rage in Hollywood in 1927. He laughs dismissively when studio chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman) demonstrates the newly-developed sound technology but soon they are queuing round the block for talkies and no one wants those silent movie epics any more.

As George resists all overtures to try the talkies, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, Argentine-born wife of the director), a dancing girl with whom he became enamoured and gave a first break to, prospers to become one of the first stars of the sound era.

Dujardin’s wonderfully expressive face conveys George’s bafflement, sadness and eventual anger at the turn of events. “I’m the one people come to see. They never needed to hear me,” he declares. Only his chauffeur (James Cromwell) and his faithful dog Uggy (a scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier) stay with him in his decline into an embittered recluse. But Peppy has not stopped loving him and finds a way to deliver a happy ending.

There are obvious parallels in plot to many other films, most notably A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain, even Lassie, and yet The Artist remains amazingly fresh and original.

Meryl Streep’s admirably pitch-perfect performance as Margaret Thatcher illuminates The Iron Lady (Cert PG) and puts her in strong contention at the Oscars. She has not only mastered the familiar voice and mannerisms of the formidable Tory politician but subtly captures her inner steeliness and with the help of some fine prosthetics presents a side we haven’t seen, the confused old lady in her eighties suffering from dementia.

That aside, the film directed by Phyllida Lloyd from an Abi Morgan screenplay tells us little we didn’t know.

We meet her tottering around her London flat with jovial husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) in tow, a comforting figment of her imagination since he has been dead for several years.

Memories trigger flashbacks. We see her as the young grocer’s daughter (Alexandra Roach) learning the homespun ethics of her stern alderman father (Iain Glen) and then battling to become a Conservative MP, eventually elected in Finchley in the Fifties, and meeting a soulmate in Denis (Harry Lloyd).

Despairing of the lack of leadership in the Tory Party, in 1975 she stands against Edward Heath (John Sessions) and unexpectedly wins - and in four years has become Prime Minister.

The focus of the film is more her battle for supremacy in a male environment than her actions which divided the country, and her crusade against the unions, the Falklands War and the Poll Tax riots are rather cursorily presented. The turmoil in Northern Ireland, for example, is seen from a personal perspective – the assassination of her friend, Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), or the IRA bombing of the Brighton Grand.

While it’s fun identifying the supporting cast - Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine, Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, the splendid Olivia Colman as Carol Thatcher – few get a chance to make much impact.

By coincidence there’s a film opening at the Showroom called Margaret (Cert 15) but it has no connection with Mrs Thatcher - and in fact is about a teenage New Yorker called Lisa.

The name of the film comes from the Margaret in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.

Anna Paquin is Lisa, a precocious self-absorbed 17-year-old attending a New York private school where she flirts with maths teacher Matt Damon and argues with classmates. But her life takes a jolt when she is involved in a bus accident caused by her distracting the driver (Mark Ruffalo).

She comes to regret giving a false statement to the police to avoid the driver losing his job, and her attempts to make things right only seem to make things worse. In her anger and frustration she takes it out on those around her - family, friends, classmates and teachers - and most of all herself.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, auteur of the 2000 Oscar-nominated You Can Count On Me, Margaret’s release has been delayed since it was filmed in 2005 because Lonergan struggled to finish the film in a way that satisfied both him and the studio.

The director wanted it to run for three hours, Fox Searchlight demanded that he get it down to two, resulting in multiple law suits.

Eventually, Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker were called in to produce a final cut of two and a half hours and Fox Searchlight Pictures gave it a limited release in the US in the Autumn.

This usually points to the film being a stinker but Margaret earned some rave reviews for capturing a post 9/11 zeitgeist when it opened in London pretty much unannounced at an obscure West End cinema where word soon got out via social network and it became a hot ticket.