The Iron Lady (2011) – Mrs Thatcher Goes Bananas…
“Begin at the beginning then go on till you come to the end: then stop.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
What is it about the biopic that induces screenwriters to start somewhere near the end, then find some contrived way to kick the story back in time to all the interesting stuff, the events the viewer wants to find out about in the first place?
In many senses, any biographical film of an important historical figure is a kind of greatest hits compilation, and two of the finest British examples of the genre, Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi, begin with such a device. Both those films have plenty of time at their disposal, clocking in at over three hours each, and focus on a relatively narrow time in their subject’s lives.
The Iron Lady, by Mamma Mia! auteur Phyllida Lloyd, tries to jam in former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s whole career into a paltry 105 minute run time, and makes the unfortunate decision to spend most of the movie stuck in the modern-day bookends. So if Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi are like double LP’s, The Iron Lady is like a 45 single.
The film opens – and stays, for much of the duration – in the company of an elderly, grieving and befuddled Mrs Thatcher (Meryl Streep), sliding into senility and having conversations with her dead husband, Denis (a breezy, likeable performance from stalwart Jim Broadbent). He rattles around in the background like the Canterville Ghost, giving kindly support to his former wife, mostly along the lines of “Chin up, old girl!”
This approach may have worked as a stage play, perhaps in a small theatre, but doesn’t work in a film biopic. It’s a strange choice of angle, and seems instantly bogus, especially when the flashbacks, when they eventually come, are triggered by clunky audio and visual cues.
Margaret Thatcher’s greatest hits: as a viewer I entered the movie interested in finding out more about the woman, and her controversial “greatest hits” – her heavy-handed, pitiless stand-off with the Trade Unions; her handling of the IRA threat and the hunger strikers; and the Falklands War.
However, with so much time wasted on fanciful imaginings of what’s happening in an elderly woman’s head, the treatment of such important incidents in Thatcher’s premiership is so disconcertingly brief the conflicts pass by almost as montage scenes. The film lacks power and scope, and to make matters worse, Streep’s old woman make up makes her look more like Mrs Doubtfire than Mrs Thatcher.
Meryl Streep inhabits the role of Mrs Thatcher with her usual ball-busting, scene-humping voracity, nailing the mannerisms and the affected accent, but not quite getting the character right. This is not necessarily her fault.
Although Thatcher is one of Britain’s most important and divisive figures of the 20th century, screenwriter Abi Morgan shies away from revealing an opinion about the woman. Instead, content to play Thatcher’s controversial leadership of the country as mostly neutral screenbites, she focusses on her as a feminist icon – a woman who had the strength and courage to muscle her way up through the Westminster glass ceilings, shouldering aside the smug, arrogant and sexist old school MPs to become Prime Minister.
While all this was undoubtedly a momentous achievement, viewing her as a feminist icon through a 21st century filter leads to a slight re-calibration of how Streep portrays the Iron Lady. Notice the moments of hesitation and softness Streep allows into her eyes, then watch a video of Thatcher giving a speech. Whatever her feelings, Thatcher never wavered, and never externalized any emotion – on the outside, she was ruthless, terrifyingly assured, mocking, and surprisingly funny.
It’s a good performance by Streep, and the Oscar that followed was predictable. But once again, I felt “Streeped” after watching the film – seeing her bullying the screen always leaves me feeling like a convict after his induction to a maximum security prison – stripped, spread, searched, hosed, scoured and thoroughly dehumanized.
Streep is cinema’s number one dominatrix, and no matter how good her performance, I always get the feeling she got more from it than me – she reminds me of a hungry, dead-eyed striker (of the football variety, not a miner or political prisoner), with two goals in the bag and hunting a third so she can take the match ball home with her.
One critic reviewing the film made the interesting point that no matter how talented Streep is, she is rarely comfortable with sharing the plaudits with a Director matching her own ability. If it’s true, then it is a strange policy for an actress as clearly passionate and ambitious as Streep when choosing her roles. While her mantlepiece may be groaning under the weight of her own numerous awards, a quick scan of her filmography hardly reveals a CV bursting with classics.
The one bona fide masterpiece on that list, The Deer Hunter (1978), also features one of Streep’s most reserved, nuanced performances, although it is barely a supporting role. Maybe she’s too greedy?
Margaret Thatcher was such an enormous 20th Century figure that it is baffling to think the people behind The Iron Lady decided it would be an adequate treatment of her life and career. For a woman of such force and personality in real life, why spend so much of the film making fanciful and frankly disturbing assumptions about the person’s later mental state? It would be barely tolerable if the real person was dead, but is intolerable and extremely patronizing considering Mrs Thatcher is still alive.
Posted on 12/01/2013, in Drama, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews and tagged Abi Morgan, Iron Lady, Mamma Mia, Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep, Phyllida Lloyd. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.