Friday, April 13, 2012

The Iron Lady is sort of about Margaret Thatcher

But mainly, it's a film in which Meryl Streep does her best (and it is quite good) impression of what could be any elderly woman suffering from dementia and mourning her husband through magical thinking.

I rented The Iron Lady with equal parts trepidation and anticipation--I'm by no means an expert on the first (and so far, only) female Prime Minister in UK history, but what I do know (union-buster, foe of liberal social programs, friend of Ronnie) I didn't particularly like. However, I was curious to see what a female director would do with her undeniably feminist story. When I told my dad I was watching the biopic, he told me that a British friend of his calls her "Maggie Thatcher the Milk Snatcher" for her cancellation of a program that gave free milk to needy schoolchildren. So when the film opened with an aged and infirm Thatcher buying a pint of milk and complaining about the price, I thought, "oooh, it's going to be clever." That's the last time I thought that.

The bulk of the film follows its subject as she totters around her flat, battles a fading memory, and converses with both the hallucination of her dead husband (a predictably excellent Jim Broadbent) and her living care-taker daughter, both of whom it is revealed through flashbacks felt abandoned and neglected because of her career. The fact that said "career" was being the Prime Minister of friggin' Britain is strangely only casually touched upon through a mix of news footage and flashbacks. Her "greatest hits" (her rise to power in the male-dominated Conservative party, the "troubles" in Northern Ireland and the IRA terrorist campaign, of which she was a target, The Falklands War, the fall of the Berlin Wall) are all represented, but the mixed chronology and brevity with which they're presented make Thatcher seem oddly passive during her time in power, which, no matter how you feel about her, seems like a radical misinterpretation of her governing style.

I guess biopics have a formula for a reason, and deviating too far from that expected narrative structure, as this film does by staging the vast majority of the action in Thatcher's apartment, in the present, drains the story of its historical resonance. Streep, with a strong assist from a fabulous pair of false teeth, does her usual chameleon-like immersion into a character, but said character fails to convey power; only pathos. I'm not sure if the film meant to de-fang Thatcher and leave the audience with an impression of her as an ultimately impotent has-been, but that's what it did. And that seems like at best a misguided attempt at cinematic experimentation, and at worst, a tone-deaf low blow.


  1. So . . . did she deserve the Oscar for it?

    1. That's a tough call. It's not like she didn't give an excellent performance, but if she was being awarded for playing Margaret Thatcher, to my mind, she barely played Margaret Thatcher. But that's not her fault--it's the movie's. Head to head with Viola Davis (for another movie that had its problems), I think I would probably give it to Viola, just because I think the impersonation factor and old-age make-up can be a crutch. But I would rather snub them both and give it to Vera Farmiga for Higher Ground.