The Iron Lady (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Iron Lady (2011)

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The Iron Lady managed to surprise me in two distinct ways.  The first, having little to do with the film, has to do with the controversy caused by portraying the aging titan as having the Alzheimer's her family reports her to actually be afflicted with.  A much worthier target would be how the film manages to take this strong, impassioned, woman and make a case about how she would have been nothing without the men in her life.

A bit counterproductive, yes, but the second issue lies with the layered on shrill caricature Meryl Streep comes up with the film edges into intolerable and boring in equal measure.  I must confess that outside of The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer I have rarely felt her play a real character in such a way that I felt a sincere connection because of her occasional flair for theatricality.  This almost singlehandedly sunk her otherwise good performance in Doubt, but here is almost laughably bad.

A series of impassioned platitudes and speeches guides every meandering scene until we realize the film isn't actually doing much of anything with anyone.  My own lukewarm reception of Streep aside, The Iron Lady sidesteps much of the controversy surrounding her reign in politics.  Instead we're left with a shallow portrait of a strong woman who engaged politics in a blue dress while surrounded by the dark suits of other men (save, of course, the men who get her to where she is).

I am struggling to comprehend what director Phyllida Lloyd and screewriter Abi Morgan were attempting to do here.  The entire film is framed from the perspective of the ailing Margaret Thatcher (Streep) who is recalling her past in the present after a bombing on British soil.  She is strong from the beginning yet still urged on, albeit subtly, by the men in her life (father says "Did we cover the butter?" during a Nazi raid and off she goes, father says "Isn't Capitalism grand" and she decides to become a softer Ayn Rand.)

This isn't the Thatcher I know from history at all but the film paints her in these oddly subservient scenes and then fails to take into account the real pain her tenure in politics caused.  Events like the IRA hunger strike, her draconic anti-union stance, and the war of bloody spite (The Balkan War) are quickly swept under the rug in short montages.  I got a better sense of Thatcher during films which aren't even directly about Thatcher (Mike Leigh's Naked and Steve McQueen's Hunger) than in her own biopic.

What's even more bizarre is even her noble accomplishments in turning Britain into a worldwide power again are equally glossed over.  All that's left is the endless repetitions of "You should run for office now" set to slightly differing elections where, at times, the only difference is the tint of her garb.  It would make sense the actions of those around her are slightly unhinged in that wonder way British character-actors know how to do, but she's barely the star of her own story in her head.

This film was flawed from its basic conception but no other element elevates it beyond the sketchy profile of Thatcher.  Her husband, played with a bit of hop to his step by Jim Broadbent, exists solely as encouragement and a bit of levity.  He brings a needed light touch to the background, but none of the other performers are either written, or given the opportunity to, portray the kind of respect she commanded.

The most perplexing is Anthony Stewart Head, an actor I very much admire, who plays Thatcher's deputy Geoffrey Howe.  Geoffrey respects her, but we never see the source or continuation of this respect and feigns from her graces just as quickly.  Worse, Thatcher's lacerating response to his resignation is kept entirely off camera.  Here is the perfect character to showcase just why Thatcher was so respected and feared, yet he comes off as just another fading shadow of support.

There is little entertainment to be had since the scenes drift in and out so clumsily, and almost no education since there isn't the slightest attempt to form an opinion on The Iron Lady.  This film is the antithesis of a piece like Robert Altman's Secret Honor, filled with rage, knowledge, and empathy toward Richard Nixon, told in a slowly suffocating way through the monitoring devices he treasured.  Lack of an easy prop is no reason to go easy on Thatcher, and less of a reason to have anything to say at all.

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The Iron Lady (2011)

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Screenplay by Abi Morgan.
Starring Meryl Streep.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Streep’s performance is so true and so uncannily accurate, so full and so complete in its understanding, that she is fascinating every second she is onscreen. As for the film itself, the structure is a bit off and the screenplay doesn’t really give us much else other than a history lesson, but a good history lesson at that. Nice review Andrew. Shame that she won the Oscar too because I think this could have been Viola’s year.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. Streep’s performance just wasn’t to my liking this time, and I wish the history lesson didn’t feel like a cliff notes on cliff notes analysis of that period of time. Still, it’s not a horrible film (that’s coming tomorrow).

  2. Her acting is ingrained in theatrically, but it doesn’t (for me) ruin all of her cinematic performances. Certainly not in DOUBT, but definitely here.

    Iron Lady was just so God damn uneventful.

    • Thanks for the comment Sam. You’re spot on with uneventful as a descriptor, especially if someone is asked to come up with a one word synopsis. Streep is by no means bad, just someone I’ve never really enjoyed, and Doubt was a good example of where she goes wrong for me. She’s great in Doubt until the big emotional moments come and then it’s embarrassing. I’m thinking specifically of her confrontation with Hoffman at the end and the several awkward moments she has holding that crucifix.

      It’s interesting you mention Doubt as well because Viola Davis does the kind of performing Meryl Streep gets credit for and dominates their scene together.

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