Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Iron Lady Movie Review

Somewhere in the life of Margaret Thatcher I’m sure there is a compelling story waiting to be told. After The Iron Lady it will have to wait a while longer I suppose. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd from a screenplay by Abi Morgan, it present just so many flashes of Thatcher’s life from girlhood through her resignation as the British Prime Minister while concurrently following her in the present day as she slowly succumbs to dementia and reflects on the glory of her fantastic political life.

I can’t figure out what Morgan and Lloyd have to say about either Thatcher the woman or Thatcher the politician. Surely such a polarizing political figure warranted a biography that highlights some exploration of the woman’s life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a polemic, but it should have some argument one way or another given the way she is revered by conservatives and reviled by liberals.

By devoting approximately half the film’s screen time to the elderly Thatcher it misses the opportunity to really delve into her rise to leader of the Conservative party and ultimately her historic run as the first female PM. It would be fine to use her later life to draw some connection between the two periods of her life or to depict a period of thought and reflection on a life and her standing in modern history. Instead Morgan misses this opportunity and uses these scenes to show a doddering old woman ever forgetful of where and when she is and hallucinating the presence of her husband (played by the always reliable Jim Broadbent), dead eight years, but ever-present in her mind to bolster her confidence or chide her for some minor transgression.

The present day thread never gets beyond the superficial which forced me to continually evaluate what the point of them was especially when they did nothing more than detract from the narrative of Thatcher’s life in politics, which is presented in flashes of facts with little context. We first see Thatcher as a girl (Alexandra Roach) looking up to her father, a grocer and local politician, with the eyes of a young movie character who will grow up to do great things. These early scenes are presented in a visual style that signals a Formative Moment in the life of the film’s subject. This is cinematography on the same plain as the occasional use of a tilted camera to let us know that something is off-kilter in her worldview. It’s pedestrian and far beneath a movie whose subject matter should demand higher esteem.

We all know, I’m sure, that Meryl Streep plays Thatcher. Streep is a master actress, brilliant at her craft and totally believable in every role she takes whether she’s donning an accent as in countless films or just plays straight as in It’s Complicated. Her performance as Thatcher is a great example of mimicry but the film doesn’t give her anything to do except imitate the woman. Except for the fact that few others could have so convincingly pulled off the physical transformation, you have to ask why Lloyd bothered casting someone of Streep’s stature and ability without giving her a greater challenge. Who was Margaret Thatcher? What made her tick? Give us some pathos please! Give us some reason to care about what she did in her life.

Thatcher’s past is presented in flashes and provided little context. She’s running for office as a young woman in 1950 and loses, but she meets her future husband Denis. Then we’re back in the present for a while before she’s being elected to Parliament and making waves as a tough go-getter in the House of Commons. Then back to 2011. Then she’s considering a run for party leader to stir things up, but BAM – she wins and then before you know it she’s the bloody Prime Minister.

All these moments are shown in sequences that are glorified montages. Nothing is given room to breathe. We don’t learn anything about Thatcher’s motivations for decisions apart from the ideology instilled by her father that she must strive to improve the country. We learn that Thatcher had to contend with IRA terrorists who blew up one of her closest colleagues and confidantes with a car bomb. She was staying in a hotel in Brighton that was bombed. She led England to war against Argentina over some insignificant islands in the South Atlantic and then gave the Alexander Haig, the US Secretary of State a dressing down by comparing the situation to Pearl Harbor. At the end of the film, what have we learned about Margaret Thatcher? She handled some difficult moments in Britain’s history. She was down, then up, then down again in popularity and she was selflessly devoted to public service. Thanks, but I could have gotten all that off her Wikipedia page.

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