The representation of politicians in cinema

The seventh art has been the witness of many political representations in the last few years. The main example is certainly The King’s Speech (directed by Tom Hooper) released in 2010, which portrayed the struggles of King George VI to overcome his stammer. What legitimacy do these movies have? Can they be considered as trustworthy as History books or documentaries?

Streep, as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady"

“A film I wish they could have made another day”. This is how Prime Minister David Cameron reacted on Radio Four to the last Phyllida Lloyd’s movie, The Iron Lady, which premiered in London earlier in January and was released on the screens a few days after. The movie portrays, through an old and forgetful Margaret Thatcher, the memories of her years in power (1979 – 1990). It features actress Meryl Streep as the main character. Cameron regrets the movie came out when Thatcher is still alive, especially

since the movie focuses, according to him, on how difficult is ageing: « You can’t help wondering, why do we have to have this film now? It’s really a film about ageing, dementia, rather than a wonderful prime minister”. Still, Cameron points out the talent of Streep and thinks of the movie as “fantastic” and “a great piece of acting, a really staggering piece of acting”.

“Tasteless”

If Cameron’s opinion of the movie (which received a Golden Globe Award for the performance of Meryl Streep last weekend) is quite positive, it is not really the case among Thatcher’s men. Lord Heseltine (played by Richard E Grant), Secretary of Defense in Mrs Thatcher’s government between 1983 and 1986, described the film as “tasteless”. He said to The Sunday Telegraph that he received an invitation to see it but he was “not interested”. He added that the film was a “commercial product that will benefit from its depiction of Lady Thatcher suffering from a very serious illness”.

“Success”

Whatever the reviews or the people might say, the movie is set to be a success: great and popular actors, massive communication and advertising, choice of powerful political figures… Just like many of the historical movies that have been released recently. Who does not remember the tremendous success of Tom Hooper’s King’s Speech? The film is based on the story of King George VI who had to cope with his stammer through a speech therapist, in order to be able to deliver properly a radio broadcast on Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, in 1939, after his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne. Director Hooper and screenplay writer David Seidler worked for years before they released the movie. Hooper had the idea of a movie about George VI in the eighties but did not start to work on it before 2002, year of the death of the Queen Mother (widow of the former King) out of respect for her. This actually was a fortunate decision since a few weeks before the filming began, some of the therapist’s notes were found and then added to the script.

The movie was a huge success, both critical and popular. It won four Academy Awards Oscars, of which Best Picture and Best Actor, for Colin Firth’s portrayal of the King. Not only was the movie a success, but also, Queen Elisabeth II (daughter of George VI) reacted in favor towards it. The Huffington Post website reports that she was “moved” by the performance of Firth. « The Queen loves a good film, » a source said. « The King’s Speech is close to the bone as it is a portrayal of her family life in the 1930s”. But mixing politicians with cinema is not a new move. There have been many examples in the past, and every important political figure can claim its immortalization on film. It is true that the people that govern them have interested the public. It might be the effect of a new era, in which communication is different and more developed than it was ten or twenty years ago.

Details in the fabric…

Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in "The Queen"

With The Queen (2006), British director Stephen Frears draws a picture of a moved United Kingdom after the death of Princess Diana, in a context of the return to power of the Labour Party, thanks to their charismatic leader, Tony Blair, who would go on to be Prime Minister for ten years. The movie focuses on the Queen Elisabeth II and on the reaction from Buckingham Palace after the tragic accident that killed the Princess of Wales. The character of Tony Blair (brilliantly played by Michael Sheen) is introduced as a young friendly man, in search of authority. The movie reveals to the audience how Tony Blair played a great role in the dealing of this case, and how he convinced the Queen to make a declaration about that tragedy. The film was a success, not only because it was well directed and well played (actress Helen Mirren won an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award as well as a Golden Globe Award for her performance as Elisabeth II) but also because it interested people and dealt with a topic that had dominated the news quite recently. People in the UK care about the Royal Family, and after they nourished themselves with the tabloid, they could refer to something more accurate, which, without being a documentary, could bring some precision to the topic.

…that is politics

Biopic is a cinema genre that is very fashionable at the moment – everywhere on the planet. Many fictions have flourished the last few years, about many political figures. In France, the film La Conquête (The Conquest) was presented last spring at the Cannes Festival. Director Xavier Durringer portrays the rise of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the French political landscape, from his position of Minister of the Interior (equivalent of the Home Office in the UK) to the Presidency. The film describes the political life as made of alliances, manipulations, betrayal but also friendship. If Sarkozy admitted, “not having seen the film”, some consider it is a great tribute as well as a great source of information, and many praise the resemblance between the actor, Denis Posalydès and the French President.

Going to see The Iron Lady might not be such a bad idea after all. Of course, a biopic will never replace a good History book or a documentary, but it can be a good complement of information, as much as a biography or a press article might be. If with her movie Lloyd gets some people to be interested in politics, it would already be a huge step. A movie does not stop the mind from building its own thoughts. It might even invite the viewer to think. After all, is it not why popular comedians do play all these emblematic figures?

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