December Brings Gender-Identity Films to Light

Monday, December 12, 2011

Movies about Aung San Suu Kyi and Margaret Thatcher releasing this month fail to match their subjects. Jennifer Merin saves applause for "Albert Nobbs," "Pariah," "Angel's Crest" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Jennifer Merin(WOMENSENEWS)-- Gender identity is the core concern of two fine December releases.

In "Albert Nobbs," coming out Dec. 21, Glenn Close plays a 19th century Irish woman who masquerades as a man in order to get a job. Albert has difficulty sorting out her personal relationships until she finds she's not alone in her predicament. The plot really takes off from there. It's a gripping story and Close's characterization in uncanny.

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"Pariah," Dee Rees's first feature released on Dec. 28, is about Alike (pronounced ah-LEEK-ay), an African-American gay teenager who leads a double life to hide her sexual preference from her strict, conservative mother. Adepero Oduye's performance as Alike is noteworthy and Rees recently won the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Director. "Pariah" is definitely worth seeing.

So is "Angel's Crest" (Dec. 30). Gaby Dellal's second feature is scripted by Catherine Treischmann. Based on Leslie Schwartz's novel, the film portrays a young father (Thomas Dekker) in a rural Colorado town accused of homicidal negligence in the accidental death of his beloved infant son. Dekker's performance is heart wrenching and Dellal is definitely a director to watch.

Another great one this month was released Dec. 9: "We Need To Talk About Kevin." Directed and co-written by Lynne Ramsey and based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, the film is a stunning drama about family dynamics with dire consequences. And Swinton's performance is a standout.

The month is also loaded with obviously sales-minded holiday fare, last-minute Oscar qualifiers and other year-end trappings. It begins and ends, however, with compelling topics for anyone with the slightest interest in female political leadership or historic events.

Tales of Two 'Ladies'

Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is the central character in Luc Besson's "The Lady" (out Dec. 2, with wider release in February 2012), while Great Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher takes charge in Phillyda Lloyd's "The Iron Lady" (out Dec 30, with wider release in January 2012).

Neither film, unfortunately, measures up to its subject matter.

Besson is famous for his strong, smart and assertive fantasy female activists in films such as "The Fifth Element" and "Angel A." But he misses the mark when given the real-life heroism of Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh). Instead of focusing on Suu Kyi's brave commitment to the cause of freedom in Myanmar, Rebecca Freyn's script dallies over the heroine's relationship with her unfailingly supportive British husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis). Yes, there's drama and inspiration in a relationship that survives the ordeals of separation, and less is generally known about Suu Kyi's personal life than her political stands, but there is unfortunately little on-screen chemistry between Yeoh and Thewlis.

"Lady" is politely, respectfully PC, but misses Suu Kyi's guts and passion. It's a film you want to love, but have difficulty even liking. What a pity. Suu Kyi deserves better.

"The Iron Lady," directed by Phillyda Lloyd and written by Abi Morgan, presents a nonlinear, rather disorienting account of Margaret Thatcher's (played by Meryl Streep) life and career. The film offers only perfunctory looks at Thatcher-spurred events that altered world history as it shuffles back and forth between the several phases of Maggie: a frail old woman who has hallucinatory chats with her dead husband (Jim Broadbent), the middle-aged dynamo in her prime, the noticeably shrill new member of Parliament and the teen who's thrilled to have earned a place at Oxford and enthusiastically embraces British post-WWII patriotic fervor.

Streep's superb performance is suitably authoritative, but not even her Oscar-worthy turn can transform Thatcher into a likeable leading lady. Perhaps that's just playing the truth. But "The Iron Lady" leaves you guessing about the real Thatcher. And not in a good way.

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