The Iron Lady – 2.5 stars
First, I really have no idea as to the historical accuracy of the movie. To the extent there are historical nits to pick, I concede.
Second, this is two films. One, very personal and touching, speaking to the loss of a loved one and an individual’s weakening ability to remember, a great thinker’s capacity to articulate and rationalize. Meryl Streep’s turn as a woman infected by Alzheimer’s is frightening, poignant and moving.
Third, it works less well as a political biography. The young Thatcher is a simplistic spouter of conservative bromides. As prime minister, she’s almost ridiculously “iron” with the men about her always clucking like nervous nellies. Worse, particular challenges are handled via music video montages and newsreel footage. It lends a certain cheap and easy feel to the endeavor. During The Falklands War in particular, she is the lone Joan of Arc amidst jelly bellies. Speech follows speech, with great, grand pronouncement. It gets silly. We even have the obligatory review of the casualty figures and the personal letter-writing histrionics.
Fourth, Streep is beyond convincing in the role and when assessing the body of her work, the idea that she is not the finest actress in the history of film is laughable. There is no Magic Johnson to her Michael Jordan. It’s not even close. And she only gets better. As the nun in Doubt, she completely captured the nuns of my early education, and as Julia Child in Julia and Julia, a role that like Thatcher could have been hammy and overt, she is vibrant and real.
Streep is indeed amazing throughout the film, but the screenplay is a mess. It starts nowhere, goes nowhere, and says nothing interesting in between. What was the point of highlighting Thatcher’s mental decline? That no matter how amazing your accomplishments are in life, it’s bound to end badly?
The moviemakers couldn’t seem to figure out what kind of film they wanted. Thatcher in mental decline as a symbol of British conservatism. Or Thatcher as the strong career woman who shook up the stuffy British establishment and showed those ponces how it was done. Without Streep, and to much lesser extent Broadbent, there’s literally nothing in this film worth seeing.
Thatcher is probably the most amazing political woman of the last century. It would be hard to not make an interesting film about her, but the dopey females put in charge of her biopic (writer Abi Morgan, director Phyllida Lloyd) somehow managed to do it.
I agree completely about Streep: She is without a doubt the best actress in the history of film, and she might be the impressive person — man or woman — ever to act.
It’s a damn shame, because the set-up was interesting. Thatcher in retirement, plagued by her mental decline and the loss of her husband, recalling her ascent and reign. Yet, that ascent was no more than a grocer’s girl mouthing platitudes and her reign was a series of clips from speeches, as the music swells and the camera swirls. And at all times, she is surrounded by sniggering, flaccid men. And then, boom!, she’s a raving bitch and she falls. What a waste of a great performance.
I thought much of that lack of focus when it came to Thatcher’s political career was because they lingered too long on her senescence. A filmmaker only has a couple hours to work with, yet at least half the film was about the present-day. Thatcher was in politics over thirty years, leader of the Conservative Party for fifteen, and in the office of the Prime Minister for over a decade. Even a straightforward chronological three-hour film would have difficulty making a coherent narrative of all that time in politics when no single major event defines Thatcher in, say, the way a single event defines a leader like Lincoln or Churchill. But what made it worse was that the filmmakers didn’t even try to focus on something. There’s a brief mention of the trade unions here, an IRA bombing or two there, a little war against Argentina punctuates the center, brief squabbles with the effete British conservative males spread evenly throughout, etc. These things pop up in the film with no warning, and then we are rushed back to watch Thatcher deal with her senility. Nothing coheres.