The Iron Lady (2011)
Directed by Phylida Lloyd
Film4, 113 mins. PG-13
Another bid for an Oscar goes down in flames. It began as a wastepaper fire, but raged out of control because the audience was too bored to notice until the flaming paper-–Abi Morgan’s screenplay–took down everything in its path.
The Iron Lady is, reputedly, a biopic of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose reign of error lasted from 1979 to 1990. Maggie Thatcher was Britain’s Reagan–a pol who gave the country over to bankers and speculators, privatized everything that wasn’t nailed down, smashed labor unions, and called it all “prosperity,” based on the evidence that a small percentage of Brits enjoyed wealth and clout the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the barons and gentry perished in the wake of World War I. She was the longest-serving PM of the 20th century, and won reelections that reflected her popularity for having presided over Britain’s victory in the 1983 Falklands War, which allowed Britain to entertain the fantasy that it was still a mighty empire. In the end, though, that proved as illusory as the second coming of the aristocracy. Brits continue to wrestle with her decisions to cut holes in the social safety net and break up British Telecom, British Airways, British Steel, and British Rail, to say nothing of her 1985 decision to reject integrating the British economy with the rest of the E.U.
Why the history lesson? Because you won’t learn much of this from the film. Thatcher, now 88, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, a fate one would wish on no one. This fact led to a curious decision on the part of Morgan and Lloyd: they focus most of the film on the post-2003 period, that year being the one in which Thatcher’s husband Denis died, and in which her own dementia began to spin out of control. Thatcher’s life is told episodically through a series of flashbacks, but the back story is truncated. That’s too bad. Young Thatcher-–actually Margaret Roberts–is played by Alexandra Roach. She is a fresh face and shows Roberts/Thatcher as a principled and fiercely determined young woman. Once Margaret is married and on the rise, Meryl Streep takes over.
I am such a huge Streep fan that I think she is this generation’s Katherine Hepburn, but she is–as the Brits would say–bloody awful in this film. Of course she can do the accent and, yes, there is some impressive acting on her part, which is part of the problem. This is one of those films in which you see the acting rather than losing yourself in the characterization. It’s as if the film should be titled The Iron Lady: Meryl Streep’s Bid for an Oscar. Streep’s attempt to wrench sympathy for the demented Thatcher is pure bathos, and her tirades against her Cabinet ministers are histrionic.
To be fair, she’s dealing with a lame script. Morgan’s screenplay has Margaret spending half the film speaking with Denis (Jim Broadbent) after his demise. Great! Just what we all wanted–Topper Goes to Parliament. The film’s longest sequences have Streep moving through a confused fog; the actual events of Thatcher’s ministry appear as snippets stripped of depth and nuance. Even worse is the film’s dishonest impression management. Thatcher is shown as argumentative, bullying, and obstinate, but small insertions such as a tabloid proclaiming booming stock markets juxtaposed against angry strikers leave the impression that she was ultimately right. Really? Ask the Scots about that; Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 poll tax almost single-handedly insured the success of Scotland’s 1997 devolution vote.
Even worse are the mawkish scenes in which Thatcher is presented as an inspiration for British women. That might be true of the Bloomsbury and fox hunting sets, but good God! I’m happy to debate the wisdom of Thatcher’s economic policies, but viewing her as a feminist icon is too absurd to warrant wasting my breath.
In the interest of full disclosure I should note that each of my three cinema companions loved the film. Who should you trust? Me on this one. Box office receipts have been scant, reviewers have been indifferent, and audience scores are low. It seems that The Iron Lady is made of lead.