Monday, July 9, 2012
Sinking the Iron Lady
Movie Review: The Iron Lady
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Reviewed: 9 July 2012
Meryl Streep is our greatest living American actress.
Margaret Thatcher is one of the most compelling leaders of the 20th Century.
How did this film turn into such an unwatchable mess?
Meryl Streep earned a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Thatcher, yet I'm perplexed. Anyone who watches this bloated yet skimpy film will walk away with even more reverence for Streep's impressive abilities as an actress, her topnotch voice work, and her uncanny ability to disappear into a role. From Angels in America to Adaptation, from Julie & Julia to The Devil Wears Prada, Streep proves ready and able to handle any acting challenge thrown her way. I look forward to her playing, say, a Bond villain, or her being part of Quentin Tarantino's universe sometime soon, and neither would surprise me. Yet, both Meryl Streep and Margaret Thatcher deserve a much better script, a better supporting cast, and a far superior director, and the result is simply a mess. A biopic attempting to serve as a psychological study, the film tells the story of Thatcher's life and rise to power, as the first female British Prime Minister, as well as her agonizing later years, imprisoned in her house and in her dementia as she speaks with hallucinations of her deceased husband Denis. My favorite moment in the film is the opening sequence where Thatcher sneaks out of her house to purchase milk and is brushed aside by busy commuters; eyes are rolled when she takes a while counting out the change for her purchase. I wish the rest of the film had that sense of collision and reality.
So, I cannot in good conscience recommend this film. It was going to receive two stars, but when I woke up this morning, I found myself even more bothered by its limitations and direction.
I'm finding myself lowering the rating on this film for a number of reasons. I love actor Jim Broadbent and have ever since he appeared in The Crying Game in 1992, and I cringed every time his cloying face appeared onscreen as Denis, Thatcher's loving spouse. Denis exists to put forth plot and exposition, and sadly, no time is given to his role as first spouse, as father, as support for his wife as she walks the tightrope of international diplomacy, sexism, and stress. No one else in the cast is allowed to establish himself or herself due to the construction of the frame story which gives far too much time to Meryl Streep in old-person makeup wandering around her prison of a home. Additionally, the filmmaking is simply inert at times; there is no artistry to the weaving into and out of the past, and several dramatic devices overstay their welcome. Lloyd's camera falls in love with shots of Thatcher surrounded by taller British men in dark suits, as well as bizarre angles that allow us to see the controversial Prime Minister being booed or adored by protesters banging on her car windows. There is little context as to how the PM appeared in the eyes of the British beyond stock footage of riots and especially vicious police. Occasionally, real footage is inter-spliced as the real Thatcher's iconic hair passes through a crowd at a distance. I feel like that image is central to this film: an iconic figure, kept at a distance without detail or nuance. And, with Streep's bravura performance, there is simply no need to show the real Thatcher.
What frustrated me the most about this film was the ultimate disservice that it does to a public figure who is still beloved and reviled for her policies. I'll admit to being very ignorant of the Falklands War in the early 80's, as well as how the conservative policies hindered or jump started the British economy. A controversial decision to keep fighting in the war seems to be more lucky than wise. The daughter of a shopkeeper, there is remarkably little compassion or empathy from Thatcher as families are evicted and unemployment looms. There is a story here, and I wonder if Thatcher herself has ever opened up in interviews or memoirs about her role in these events. She dances with a Ronald Reagan look alike at one point, avoiding nearly any American connection to the events of the eighties. A similarly fascinating examination of the IRA bombings in the eighties is unexplored.
I knew Margaret Thatcher from a cheesy cameo caricature at the end of James Bond's For Your Eyes Only where she slaps Denis's hand as he tries to steal a cookie and she coos into the telephone as James Bond's parrot sweet talks her; I knew her reputation as well as from other British films like Brassed Off! and The Full Monty which seemed to outright declare her policies fascist, cruel, and damaging to the working man and woman. There are hints of the struggles both she and her country faced in this film: the IRA, the end of the Cold War, the Falklands, the miners, unemployment, etc... Yet, at no point does Lloyd or the screenplay ever wish to delve into the consequences of Thatcherism, either politically or personally. We see Thatcher agonizing over letters to families of soldiers killed because of her decisions, yet without context, I have no way of knowing whether the Falklands War was justified and necessary to bolster Britain's confidence, if it was a reactionary move made by an insecure female leader determined to show steel in her spine, or even more murky than that. Lloyd's film focuses on a dementia-ridden older woman, alone in her guarded fortress, watching the news about terrorism as she lapses in and out of reality, unable to process or verbalize her regrets as a mother, a leader, a daughter, a person.
Meryl Streep is truly incredible, and her ability to push past such a sloppy and mawkish film, garnering the top prize in acting for last year is simply remarkable and a testament to the voters overwhelming good will for her and recognition of her continued commitment to acting with aplomb. Leonardo DiCaprio failed to do the same in last year's J. Edgar, another revisionist biopic which I reviewed a full star above this one. Although Streep's performance far outshines DiCaprio's, J. Edgar probes ever so lightly at the fastidiousness, the guilt, the repression, and the paranoia underscoring the decades of the FBI activity under Hoover. The film fails, but it engages the mind on some level and offers some shades. The Iron Lady aims for cheap, unearned emotions at the end, glosses over fascinating historical events and decisions, eliminates Margaret Thatcher's family from her life story in any meaningful way, and its poorly constructed screenplay mishandles the opening thirty minutes of the film, failing to provide any momentum, any energy for the story of someone who, from my limited understanding, was a dynamo of 20th Century statesmanship, the first woman to hold power in the western world.
What a shame.
Now, let's push for Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher as a James Bond villain!