The Laundromat

Another spin with Meryl Streep

3 Stars

By © Jane Freebury

In shapeless, comfy clothes and floppy grey wig, Meryl Streep is barely recognisable in her latest film, The Laundromat. It’s not a big role, but it is consistent with a career inclined towards the portrayal of independent women.

As a housewife, Ellen Martin, whose husband drowns in a boating accident, she comes to realise that she has been dudded by the life insurance company. An unlikely late-life warrior with a bit of steel in her, she has the spirit to take her complaint to the source, direct to head office.

The Laundromat is based on the story of Mossack Fonseca, the company that was at the centre of the ‘Panama Papers scandal’, the scandal that in 2016 exposed widespread use of offshore tax havens.

Ellen’s story is one of three in this new Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s series, Traffic) film about how money laundering works and the impact it has. The screenplay is by Scott. Z Burns who wrote and directed The Report, about the endorsement of torture by the CIA post 9/11.

The Laundromat also relates a significant subject, and is put together by very talented people, including Gary Oldman as Mossack, Antonio Banderas as Fonseca, and Matthias Schoenaerts as a British businessman who Chinese clients get the better of.  It is watchable and has its moments though it is largely delivered as jaunty farce. The crime caper tone sets the film at odds with itself.

Streep is good, of course. There’s not a lot for her to do really, except to lend her stellar presence to a good cause.

It will be interesting to see her in the next new film from Soderbergh that is due out this year. It could be edgy. After five decades of work, after the reams of words written, after the accolades that garland her career, Streep seems, more and more, to be up for anything.

She first stood out in a small part in The Deer Hunter, a Michael Cimino film of 1978 that was one of the first to open up on the impact the Vietnam War had on veterans back home. Around the same time, she played a Holocaust survivor who had been forced into an unspeakable decision (Sophie’s Choice), and then lent dignity to a young mother in a wrenching custody battle that touched on gender roles and parental rights (Kramer vs Kramer). Opposite Jeremy Irons in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, she was simultaneously tragic Victorian fallen woman and a liberated married actress having an affair.

By the time she took the role of nuclear power whistle blower and union activist in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood of 1983, Streep had already made it, big.

Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) asks passerby (Jeffrey Wright) for the street address of Mossack Fonseca

Out of Africa with Robert Redford mid-decade was an extravagant big budget splash that she didn’t need to make. Even though she is often best remembered today for that soap opera in the hills of Kenya, the films that complemented her talents were the other, far better titles that had come out earlier.

Streep mastered Polish in Sophie’s Choice and Danish in Out of Africa, but she doesn’t always nail it. In the role of Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels, her Australian accent didn’t work for me. Admittedly, Australian is a big ask, that many actors cannot manage, landing somewhere near Cockney English. Streep is in good company.

There was a period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s when she less visible, probably focussed on her teenage children. There was a spectacular return afterwards, with Mamma Mia! and a performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady that earned her a third Oscar.

Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award more often than any other actor. She has an outstanding 21 nominations. The two closest runners-up in nominations, Jack Nicholson and Katharine Hepburn, with a paltry 12 each. In her lifetime, Hepburn won four Oscars, but Streep, who has three, has just turned 70 and there is still time to at least equal the record.

The late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker, was a famous detractor. but she wasn’t around to see Streep as an aging rocker in Ricki and the Flash five years ago. It was a cracker of a performance, and as Streep has observed, she can sing better than Madonna.

The Laundromat is streaming on Netflix

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image:  Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas)

Pain and Glory

MA15+, 114 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The actor Antonio Banderas and director Pedro Almodovar first worked together in the 1980s and helped make each other famous with sexy, taboo-breaking films like Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! It was the post-Franco era in Spain and time to tear down decades of fascist repression.

Pain and Glory reflects on the central relationships in Salvador’s (Banderas) life – mother, lovers and actor collaborators. It’s a very personal collaboration between the actor and filmmaker, like a confessional from a couple of famous men of the big screen.

We first see Banderas, as successful film director Salvador Mallo, holding a pose while meditating at the bottom of a swimming pool.  The watery world draws memories of his early childhood to the surface, memories of laundry day at the river’s edge with his young mother (played in these scenes by another Almodovian muse, Penelope Cruz).

A gift for directors, fromTarantino to Almodovar, Banderas has had health issues of his own

As he catches up with an old friend, Salvador reveals that he has stopped writing and directing. Her surprise that he, of all people, has become reclusive and inactive, is a clue to the kind of person he was.

In later flashbacks, while in conversation with his elderly mother, he listens in such a touching way to her complaints that he disappointed her. Later, in a sweet scene between Banderas and Julieta Serrano, who plays Jacinta in her old age, she explains exactly how she wishes to be laid out when she dies.

In conversation with his long lost friend, Salvador recounts his various ailments, a list of enemies within that have beset him. His asthma, headaches, tinnitus and the sciatica that has given him a bad back. It’s a scary anatomical collage of medical imagery, almost as arresting as the opening titles over melting images that turn from solid to liquid before our eyes.

The state Salvador is in is a million miles from the irresistible hunk Banderas played in Almodovar’s early films, or from the swaggering hero he has played in Hollywood.

Another key relationship, not so explicitly referenced, is with the gay lover Salvador had when they were young men, before Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) left for Argentina and took a wife. The scenes between them 30 years later at Salvador’s apartment in Madrid, including the prominent kitchen with its bright red cupboards that looks a lot like the director’s own, are lovely to watch too.

Salvador (Antonio Banderas) and Alberto (Asier Etxeandia)

Yet another key relationship is the actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) from whom Salvador has also been estranged many years. Both Etxeandia and Sbaraglia give terrific performances too.

Handsome, tousle-haired, with a shy twinkle in his eye, Banderas has always been a welcome sight on screen. A gift for directors, from Quentin Tarantino to Almodovar, looking for a swashbuckler with devil-may-care (Desperado) or for a man for women to desire. Yet, here in Pain and Glory the presence we became used to is barely present. Banderas has been chastened by a real-life health issues of his own – a recent heart attack.

These life stories of these two creative collaborators, the film director and his alter ego, wind around each other like a double, double helix. Except that Banderas isn’t gay.

Almodovar’s witty, naughty, exuberant early work has developed and matured

It is like two of them put their heads together to create an intelligent, amusing and moving film with deep meaning for them both. Their energy coalesces around the wonderful performance that won Banderas the best actor award at Cannes earlier this year.

Since I became captivated by Almodovar’s witty, naughty, exuberant early films, he has remained one of my favourite filmmakers. All the while, his distinctive filmmaking – Volver and All About My Mother and Talk to Her among his best – has evolved, developed more depth and matured.

It isn’t surprising to hear in interview that another key relationship in Almodovar’s life has been the cinema, the world in which he says he still lives today. It’s a place of warmth and sensuality, of wit and wisdom, and as we see here, not without regrets.

Pain and Glory is a superior work from Pedro Almodovar with an intensely sensitive performance from Antonio Banderas. Both men may have been the bad boy and seen it all, but we didn’t know about this gentle, reflective side deep within.

First published in print and online by the Canberra Times on 9 November 2019