“I’d like to thank the Academy…”

Neither character assassination nor hagiography, The Iron Lady is doomed to displease movie lovers of both liberal and conservative stripes. Though it is admirable if unconvincing in its stab at humanizing Margaret Thatcher, it fails to illuminate her in any way except the most simplistic. In fact, the film’s only possible reason for existence is as a bid to win Meryl Streep an Oscar for her performance as the controversial Prime Minister. That could actually happen because Streep delivers a fairly miraculous bit of mimicry and the film at least entertains whenever she’s on screen. As drama however, it is as inert and dull as any other of dozens of respectful historical biographies. It’s not that The Iron Lady needs fireworks, but surely there was an interesting character to be found somewhere between the harpy who strangled government to death and the heroic Ronald Reagan BFF who helped end the Cold War. If so, this film fails to find her.

The Iron Lady introduces Thatcher as a doddering old lady in the years following the death of her husband. Stricken by ill health and memory loss, she could be anyone’s sweet old grandmother. It’s calculated to be disarming and humanizing and it might’ve succeeded except for a script littered throughout with dialogue ripped from a stuffy memoir. The words all have that worked over, carefully studied quality. Characters don’t have conversations, they speak in platitudes and sound bites that have all the subtlety and nuance of the Hall of Presidents attraction at Disney World.

Though the dialogue is trite, the screenplay rather cleverly uses Thatcher’s deteriorating mental state to fluidly segue into her history. The line between past and present first blurs when she imagines her husband (Jim Broadbent, good as always but given little to do) still alive and she confuses current events with those that happened long ago. Soon we’re in full flashback to young Margaret Roberts, the plucky grocer’s daughter who survived The Blitz and who picked herself up by her bootstraps to make it in to Oxford where she carried on dear old dad’s conservative “do it for yourself, don’t rely on government” political torch. It’s an elegant transition, unfortunately nothing much happens when we get there except more sound bites and speechifying.

From there the story skims over the highlights and lowlights of Margaret’s life, from her marriage to Denis Thatcher and her first failed bid at public office, to her eventual success and rise to Prime Minister, to the assorted controversies and successes that marked her career. This stuff may well have a bigger impact on British audiences who lived with Margaret’s decade as Prime Minister for better or for worse than it does those of us for whom she is mostly a side note. In fact, if it weren’t for Streep, it’s hard to imagine The Iron Lady playing anywhere beyond the BBC.

And Streep’s nifty if showy performance is what keeps the film afloat through its relatively brisk (for a bio) running time, despite all of its flaws. Streep entertains and her performance benefits from the cinematographer’s willingness to often just sit still and watch the actress work her magic even when she’s not speaking. There’s a scene where Margaret is literally just washing a plate. It has a double meaning referring back to something Margaret told her husband about what kind of wife she’d be when he asked her to marry him, but it’s still just her washing a plate. Streep faces toward the camera as she performs this mundane task and the performance is purely in her range of expressions and mannerisms.

The level of detail in every gesture is amazing to watch, but at the same time there’s no real sense Streep has found a human being underneath. It’s easy to enjoy the act of transformation in and of itself, and it is indeed considerable, but there’s a creeping feeling all along that it doesn’t amount to anything meaningful. Technically, it’s a similar performance to Streep’s turn as Julia Child in Julie and Julia, but there she succeeded in humanizing an icon and in providing a perspective that was familiar but also fresh at the same time. In The Iron Lady, she almost gets there but is ultimately held back by a screenplay with nothing to add to what we already know.

3 Responses to “The Iron Lady (2011)”

  1. Yep, I did figure as much. A memorable performance in a mediocre film. You confirmed my expectations here to a tee.

  2. i actually didn’t even think her performance was all that memorable. but it was effective given the material. jim broadbent is really good here though.

  3. I know I’m pretty much alone here, but I absolutely adore this film. I thought the way it chronicled her story through the seeming random nature of memories returning through the fog of old age was excellent. Really strong stuff here.

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