Tag Archives: drama

My Year With Meryl: Hope Springs (2012)

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After winning her third Academy Award, Meryl could have taken a much deserved break, but not only did she start shooting August: Osage County soon after her big win, she had another movie due for release later that summer—the David Frankel comedy-drama Hope Springs. Unlike The Iron Lady, which was the kind of prestige picture made specifically to win awards, Hope Springs is a quiet, sometimes funny, often sad movie that works more as a rainy day kind of entertainment. Meryl does a terrific job in Hope Springs playing a vulnerable, unsatisfied housewife named Kay, but it’s actually Tommy Lee Jones, who plays her repressed husband Arnold, who transforms his typical tough guy persona to create an emotionally resonant character.

Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay was originally titled Great Hope Springs and was for some time on the Black List, the list of most loved unproduced screenplays circulating Hollywood. It was Meryl’s enthusiasm over the project that got it officially rolling, and she turned to her The Devil Wears Prada helmer Frankel to take the directing reigns. He says in the DVD audio commentary that when Meryl boards a movie—any movie—a director essentially has his pick of any actors he wants for the other roles. Would Carell have taken the role of the therapist Doctor Feld if not for the opportunity to perform with two acting legends? Probably not. Would Elizabeth Shue, who back in 1996 was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars along with Meryl, have taken a brief cameo as a no-name waitress? Meryl is so respected that she attracts many fantastic actors to her projects, and together Frankel and Meryl decided on Jones for the pivotal role of her husband, Arnold.

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It’s easy to see what attracted Meryl to Hope Springs. How often do major movies get made, let alone movies released in the summer among superhero blockbusters, that are about two people over age sixty trying to put the spark back into their relationship? Very few, and even fewer that are made with wit and intelligence. The story is simple: Kay (Meryl) has been married to Arnold (Jones) for thirty-one years, but any emotion felt between the two has been lost. They sleep in separate bedrooms, they don’t talk about anything, they don’t even touch each other anymore. She realizes the marriage is doomed if she doesn’t do something to save it, so she drags Arnold to Maine to spend a week in intensive counseling with the renowned Doctor Feld (Carell). By opening up to the therapist and each other, they find what’s lacking, and what needs to be fixed, before one of them might decide it’s too late.

Hope Springs is not the most visually arresting movie—much of it takes place in one drab room with three people just talking to each other—but the performances are so great and the dialogue is so truthful that even when the movie feels like a series of one-act plays, it works. These scenes crackle with a perfectly timed rhythm that make them pure joy, to the point that some of them seem too short, even at eight to ten minutes. Meryl and Jones have a tremendous chemistry that makes them feel like a real couple, both when they’re in a bad place, and when they finally reach a better one. What works especially well is screenwriter Taylor’s insistence that Kay and Arnold not have an easy road toward an authentic reconciliation; until the last few minutes, it’s not clear if the two will be able to work through their problems. This element gives the film an effective level of unpredictability, even though in our hearts we know they’ll find love again. While Frankel lays it on too thick at times with some ill-timed pop songs—Annie Lennox’s saccharine “Why” toward the end of the movie is a prime example—and while the happy ending is a little too abrupt, Hope Springs is definitely worthwhile viewing.

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The performances are all solid. Carell has the most thankless role as Doctor Feld, simply because he plays a character with no backstory or depth of any kind (although the DVD includes a great deleted scene that shows in explicit detail his marital woes). This is a movie about Kay and Arnold, and to have gone into the history of Feld would have been inappropriate, but Carell is a welcome dramatic presence in a film that plays up his stone-faced strengths. Jones, the Oscar winner for the smart-talking Samuel in The Fugitive and Oscar nominee for the similarly cynical Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, is wonderfully subdued as Arnold. He’s physically perfect casting for this role, a man who’s emotionally closed off from his wife and scared to reignite their intimacy, but it’s his deeply felt performance that truly makes this film worth watching. Over the years, Jones has had the tendency to go over-the-top in his movies (think Natural Born Killers, Batman Forever, and JFK) and this quieter guy, who resembles more his characters from No Country for Old Men and the recent The Homesman, which also co-stars Meryl (they also appeared in A Prairie Home Companion together), is Jones at his best, looking inward and trying his best to come out of his shell. Jones is a pleasure to watch in Hope Springs, and his performance should have received more accolades.

Meryl is appropriately dowdy as Kay, with a blonde hairdo and thick black glasses that cover most of her face, and unlike many of her previous characters, she is someone who doesn’t often speak her mind—it takes every ounce of courage inside of her just to ask her husband to come with her to the therapy sessions. Many might think this performance was a step-down after her bravura, Oscar-winning work in The Iron Lady, but the magic of Meryl is that she refuses to be predictable in her choice of characters and that she’s unafraid to take on someone who might not necessarily be the most outspoken. She followed up her frumpy therapist character in Prime with her Queen of Evil in The Devil Wears Prada; she followed up her dancing and singing in Mamma Mia with her quietly damaged nun in Doubt. To look at The Iron Lady and Hope Springs back to back is to see an actress completely in command of her craft, and not afraid to show her own vanity. She’s not expected to look like a bombshell in Hope Springs, and her mousy appearance only helps in making Meryl the person disappear into this character that surely millions of women can relate to. So much of her brilliance in this performance comes from moments when she doesn’t even open her mouth but instead just sits and thinks and reacts. Meryl doesn’t have to go big to be great; at this stage in her career, just watching her be is more than enough. Hope Springs is not a great movie, but it’s an endearing one, and it features two of our finest actors in top form.

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My Year With Meryl: The Iron Lady (2011)

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We have arrived at one of the more controversial films on Meryl’s resume, both how it depicts Margaret Thatcher in her later life and how Meryl finally won her third Academy Award, beating out the supposed favorite, Viola Davis. The Iron Lady, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is a strangely unaffecting movie that goes by far too slowly and features a weird hodgepodge of narratives that never mix together well. The greatest disappointment of the movie is that it could have been great, given that Meryl is sensational in it, playing Thatcher as ambitious in her early days, strong and willing to make touch decisions in her Prime Minister days, and losing the light in her later stage of dementia. Everything about Meryl’s performance is flawless and screams master class. It’s just a shame that little in the film measures up to her.

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The blame has to go to Morgan’s screenplay and Lloyd’s direction, which never finds a compelling point of view into who Thatcher really was. Abi, who wrote the 2013 feature The Invisible Woman and won an Emmy for writing the mini-series The Hour, seemed to think watching scene after scene of the elderly Thatcher getting false glimpses of her husband and marveling at the skyrocketing prices of milk would be fascinating for the viewer, but they’re not. If the film had merely begun and ended with the wraparound story of Thatcher as old, there might have been a point to be made about the pursuit of power and its consequences, but the film keeps cutting back to her in this stage, time and time again, to the point where any point to be made becomes lost. Lloyd, who previously directed Meryl in the musical extravaganza Mamma Mia, which is about as far removed from The Iron Lady as you can get, casted the movie well—Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head is particularly good as Geoffrey Howe—and brings a polished look to the proceedings. Clearly, though, she didn’t have a handle on the themes of the movie either, because she allowed the odd shifts of narratives to play out the way they do.

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The same way that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln effectively examines not Abraham Lincoln’s entire life, but a small, important nugget of it, The Iron Lady could have been a tense, absorbing look into a short period of time in Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister, maybe focusing on a specific issue she contended with that brought great controversy onto her. Instead, there’s too much: we get glimpses of Thatcher as a young woman starting out in her career (Alexander Roach, uncanny as a younger Meryl), and Thatcher as the Prime Minister, and Thatcher as the old lady who’s slowly going mad. The film also tries to make us care about the love story Thatcher had with Denis Thatcher (an inappropriately wily Jim Broadbent in the older years and a more restrained Harry Lloyd in the younger ones). But since so little of the movie focuses on the older Denis when he’s actually alive, the emotional resonance of this relationship gets lost in the process. There’s so much going on at times, with rarely a scene that’s allowed to play out long enough to get us invested, that at a certain point it feels like an editor could’ve taken all of the scenes in the movie, thrown them in a blender, and come out with something that more and less represents the film as it stands now.

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All of these story and editing problems almost serve to try to weaken Meryl’s stellar performance, which represents probably her best dramatic work since The Bridges of Madison County. Fairly short at one hour and forty-five minutes—many famous screen biopics like Gandhi and Nixon have weighed in at over three hours—The Iron Lady should have given Meryl a lot more to work with, but she does her best with what she has to work with. She is intimidating, clever, and funny in her many scenes as Thatcher in her Prime Minister years, with true-to-life wardrobes, an impeccable accent, and subtle, masterful make-up and hair that won Oscars for Mark Coulier, and J. Roy Helland, the latter figure having worked with Meryl throughout her entire career. (When he picked up his Oscar, he said, “Thanks, Meryl, for keeping me employed for the last thirty-seven years. Your brilliance makes my work look good no matter what.”) Her make-up is even more convincing when she’s older, with cleverly hidden prosthetics and Meryl appearing believably like an old woman, and despite these scenes not working as well as they should, Meryl is brilliant at capturing the downfall of this once powerful figure.

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Even though just catching a glimpse of Meryl as Thatcher prompted everyone to assume Meryl would be nominated for another Academy Award, her likelihood of actually winning seemed uncertain leading up to the big night in 2012. While she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, Viola Davis had been picking up steam in recent weeks, winning the important Best Female Actor in a Lead Role at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, for her terrific performance in The Help. The only African American actress to have won a leading role Oscar was Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, and it seemed possible that Davis would become the second. But in the end, the Academy decided that Meryl’s work in The Iron Lady, despite the film’s shortcomings, was worthy of the big award. It had been twenty-nine years since she’d won her last Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, after all, and she had lost a whopping twelve times since. She had gotten close with Doubt, and semi-close with Julie & Julia. It was time.

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The biggest tragedy of her winning, of course, is that in the far-off future, people may turn to The Iron Lady before they look at much better dramas she appeared in, like A Cry in the Dark, The Bridges of Madison County, and Marvin’s Room, the latter of which she wasn’t even nominated for. People might think that because Meryl won for this specific performance, it might also be the better movie. While Meryl is amazing in The Iron Lady, it’s arguably one of her weakest movies overall, and it’s sad, given the great opportunity of having Meryl play the powerful and polarizing figure of Margaret Thatcher, that the filmmakers couldn’t have produced a more entertaining and involving film.

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