Review: The Iron Lady

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Though I lived through her tenure as British Prime Minister, I don’t know enough about British history to know what The Iron Lady does or does not get right. I do know that Margaret Thatcher was and is despised by liberals, and celebrated by conservatives (I remember George Will, one year in the ’80s, declaring that she was his choice for person of the year).

Let’s just grant that I’m not the kind of person that would be nostalgic for Margaret Thatcher. Therefore, I will try to limit my remarks to this film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, to its cinematic value only. My first response is: why?

The script is written in a familiar biographic form–the remembrances of an old person. Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, is first seen as if she were some typical woman buying milk at the corner store. Then she is seen having breakfast with her husband, Jim Broadbent. But everything is not as it seems, as indicated by the brief glimpse of a guard with a machine gun in the hallway. Thatcher is indeed a baroness, who slipped out to buy milk against the wishes of her staff, and her husband is dead. In her encroaching dementia, though, he stays with her.

Throughout the two or so days we spend with the elder Thatcher, her life flashes before her. Daughter of a grocer, who was also a mayor, she goes to Oxford, enters the man’s world of politics, and after losing at least one election, gets elected to Parliament in 1959. She marries Dennis Thatcher, and decides to run for party leader. She becomes Prime Minister, and with her conservative, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy, slashes the budget, wages war on Argentina, enrages unions, and finally gets so bossy that she’s pushed out.

As I walked out of the theater, I wondered, what was the point of this film? It seems to have no particular point of view. It does seem to try to bend over backwards to show us she was a loving wife and mother, but even Hitler had a girlfriend–that she seemed to have a normal home life doesn’t excuse anything. Later Lloyd, along with screenwriter Abi Morgan, show us how she was not beloved by all of her people, but aside from her belief that people with problems should fix it themselves, and not look to the government, there’s little of her political philosophy on hand. There’s a bit of her struggle as a woman in man’s world, by showing her in a sea of men in suits, the “lady member’s room” in the House of Commons basically a closet with an ironing board, but Thatcher wasn’t exactly Germaine Greer. I remember people, perhaps her critics, saying she was successful as a woman in politics because she thought just like a man.

So the film shows us Thatcher in her dotage, hallucinating her dead husband, who was a bit of a wag (at one point, he spoils the mystery she’s reading) and shows us the highlights of her life. One critic, I’m sorry that I can’t remember who, compared the film to Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”–“war in the Falklands!” There’s the obligatory scene showing her hotel room being bombed by the IRA, but there’s nothing in the script that tells us how she felt about that or what she thought of the Irish situation. It’s just a slide show.

As for Meryl Streep, she’s uncanny in how she can inhabit a character. She’s got the plummy British nuance of her voice down. The makeup focuses on her teeth, which is a bit distracting, but I think that’s because we know what Streep looks like, and therefore know exactly what is real and what is not. If an unknown actress had played the part the makeup wouldn’t have been an issue. I think I detected some leftover voice mannerisms from Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child, though.

The Iron Lady is competently made and acted, but I’m at a loss as to what it was supposed to make me think and feel. Sympathy? Admiration? Don’t judge too hastily? I don’t know. It certainly didn’t change my mind about Thatcher–I doubt it will for anyone, supporter and critic alike.

My grade for The Iron Lady: C-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

11 responses »

  1. Sounds like the film is as empty as reviews have generally described it to be. Tough call as to whether this or ‘My Week With Marilyn’ is the least interesting Oscar bait film.

    While the standard of her films is quite variable, Streep’s acting record is quite remarkable. I don’t think there’s ever been a film where I recall any criticial consensus where she’s put in a poor performance or even been miscast.

  2. What a strange movie this is. It starts out as a reasonably effective look at the confusion and frustration of someone experiencing the onset of dementia, and then it turns into a rather banal political biopic, at least in a structural sense.

    At the same time, though, the scenes that emphasize her dementia color the rest of the film. This may just be my biases showing, but I thought the movie made Thatcher look … what’s a good British word here … cracked from just about the start of her career to the finish. Streep plays her that way, too, like every single sentence from her is the pronouncement of a raving lunatic. I could definitely relate to Al Haig in the Falklands scene – “Pearl Harbor? What is this damned looney talking about?” I could scarcely imagine a less favorable depiction of Thatcher, frankly. Even Dennis’s last line to her seems like a grievous insult in context, something that Rhett Butler might have said to Scarlett if the censors hadn’t allowed the swear word.

    Was this intended? I have no idea. It could just as easily have been the result of a particularly thoughtless approach. People who know nothing about politics often look stupid when they try to talk about political subjects, and that could very well apply to the filmmakers in this case. Or perhaps the film is a lot more subversive than I would have guessed, and I’m having trouble getting a handle on it.

    Who can say, but I lean towards the former explanation, since no matter what it’s still not a good film. One way or the other, it’s a total mess of a script, with a really unreasonable amount of time devoted to Thatcher’s old age and delusions of her husband. Half the movie is made up of Streep giving monologues that seem intended to serve as potential Oscar-night clips. Supporting characters are almost entirely neglected. There’s virtually no sense of the political environment in which Thatcher operated, either in terms of Parliamentary maneuvering or public issues.

    I don’t think there’s ever been a film where I recall any criticial consensus where she’s put in a poor performance or even been miscast.

    I wonder if this is even possible. Let’s face it, her track record has been very underwhelming for quite some time, at best putting up watchable performances in generally problematic films, and her critical image has hardly taken a hit in the slightest.

    Critics just don’t seem to have much interest in challenging her reputation, or those of major stars in general for that matter.

  3. Critics just don’t seem to have much interest in challenging her reputation, or those of major stars in general for that matter.

    They sure don’t pick on DeNiro or Hoffman.

  4. Since Adaptation/The Hours a decade ago, probably the only Streep to get a really positive critical response so Brian’s observation seems fairly accurate.

    Back on TIL, there was a conservative newspaper columnist here in Australia who said she walked out of the film because of how Thatcher was portrayed, which I guess is what Brian is alluding to. So it seems to be alienating people on all sides of the political spectrum.

  5. Not that I’m any great worshiper of Meryl Streep, but I would call her recent track record fairly solid. True, her best films were early in her career (she has been in five Best Picture nominees, but only one, The Hours, was in the last 25 years, and three were in supporting roles), but give her a break–how many sixtyish actresses have had a better run than she has the last ten years. Sure, she had some clunkers, like Lions for Lambs and Rendition, but she was in some well-received hits like Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia, a smash (Mamma Mia) and a fairly well-received film, Doubt, and did a voice for the great Fantastic Mr. Fox.. And her role in Adaptation is one of the best performances she’s ever given, for my money. At least she hasn’t been whoring herself like De Niro, who seems to have lost whatever intensity that made him great. Streep may not be making classics, but she’s still working hard.

  6. At least she hasn’t been whoring herself like De Niro, who seems to have lost whatever intensity that made him great.

    I’ve seen relatively little of De Niro’s recent work, but it’s not like sixtyish actors have a glut of great roles to choose from, either. Pacino’s been doing the same kind of crap as De Niro and Hoffman, to my knowledge, is barely working in film anymore. In fact, I think Streep probably has an easier time of things than those guys, because she has a real box-office track record aside from the Fockers franchise.

    At any rate, it’s hard to see those movies you listed as anything other than confirming my point. That’s a really great list if you’re a Hollywood executive but otherwise she’s now pretty much an older version of Sandra Bullock.

  7. Agree with Brian, that list of films JS mentions aren’t exactly stellar in quality. As I said in my review here, I thought ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ was exceedingly mediocre – I think it’s an example of how a film gets overrated as a whole because Streep is in it (and does put in a fine performance).

    Mamma Mia was harmless (as long as you like ABBA) but nonsensical with a plot that was inane even by musical standards.

    Saw her in another film from the 2000s, ‘Prime’. That was OK and she was fine (in a smallish supporting role) but it was non-essential viewing.

    I do think Streep isn’t where De Niro who has just been phoning in his performances for over a decade. She generally puts in quality work… in some fairly ho-hum material.

  8. My point is, for a woman who is sixty-whatever, she still makes decent movies on a regular basis, not garbage, even if they aren’t up to Marco and Brian’s rigorous standards. How many other women of her age can say that? There’s not many good parts for women of her age, but she gets most of them.

  9. My point is, for a woman who is sixty-whatever, she still makes decent movies on a regular basis, not garbage

    I don’t disagree with this at all. My point is, this is not what her reputation is; she is an ultra-prestigious actress who for a long time now has mostly made slight crowd-pleasers.

    I’m not saying that it’s all her fault, I’m not saying that she needs to do better … I’m just saying that her projects do not match thel level of prestige that she brings to them. And that ones that purportedly do (e.g., Doubt, The Iron Lady, The Hours although I know you liked it, JS) tend to be problematic.

    Saw her in another film from the 2000s, ‘Prime’.

    I was wracking my brain, trying to remember her in this movie, and I just couldn’t. Then I realized I was thinking of Proof, with Gwyneth Paltrow, which came out the same year.

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