The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

15Jan12

Meryl Streep (Margaret Thatcher), Jim Broadbent (Denis Thatcher), Alexandra Roach (Young Margaret Thatcher). Screenplay by Abi Morgan. Directed by Phillida Lloyd. Rating: 12A. Running time: 105 minutes.

When will our obsession with biopics end? They are churned out yearly and inevitably produce shoo-ins for Best Actor or Actress. Apparently it is now harder, and more praiseworthy, to master the nuanced expressions of a real and recognisable person than it is to carve out a character from scratch. Over the last ten years we’ve had Hoffman as Capote, Cotillard as Piaf, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, and no doubt countless others I can’t care to remember. This year alone I count three. After sitting through a relatively swell My Week With Marilyn, we have Hoover embodied by DiCaprio to look forward to, and then, right now, our screens are dominated by The Iron Lady.

If there was ever the need for a performance to prop up a poor film, this was it. And yet even with the barely disputed magic of Meryl, this sluggish and thoughtless mess doesn’t manage to muster up many merits. There are so many flaws it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s look at it this way: if a film can’t even use Jim Broadbent in an advantageous manner, perhaps the problems are inevitable. The writing may have even been on the wall earlier than this: should we really have carried great expectations for the director of Mamma Mia now taking on the task of portraying the most divisive but interesting character in modern British political history?

The first thirty minutes give us nothing but dementia, but given the rate we’re made to return to it we won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. The Thatcher we’re first shown is a hallucinating frail fruitcake, and scene after scene serves no purpose but to demonstrate this in exactly the same way as the scene prior.

She imagines breakfast with Denis, years after he has died. She envisions him shaving, lying in bed, pondering crosswords, waving through the window. Broadbent pops up everywhere and promptly vanishes. Flash across to Streep looking bewildered, slightly upset, and then before we know it back to the daydreams again.

It’s not only that this gets torturously tedious. It’s not even a certain representation of the woman’s mental state. Her later years have been notoriously secretive, with her children and closest friends refusing to expose her to any interviews or public appearances that will give away her current condition. And so to hypothesise not only that she hallucinates, but that she does so this persistently, smacks of crass, crappy ‘true’ storytelling, and not even in the name of good filmmaking. She has dementia, yes, and to represent this is fine. But there’s a way of doing it, and I’m with Cameron here in thinking this is not it. I can’t rationalise this thought, but there just seems something inherently shitty about granting yourself a licence to pass off as truth the workings of another’s fragile mind while they’re still alive. But harp on and on about it, this film quite happily does.

If this is overplayed, the emphasis on her confrontation with sexism threatens to do the same. We can’t even watch the moment that Denis proposes marriage without a preachy speech about how she won’t just sit at home and do the dishes being injected into the madly loose ‘narrative’. And when we finally get around to seeing Thatcher arrive in Parliament (for a film suggesting it is interested in the role of women in public life, The Iron Lady is awfully slow to show us just that), we’re made to believe she was the only woman there. Yes, no women reached the Commons until Maggie. 645 men, 1 woman. This is nonsense. There were at least 20 women. Still measly and unjustifiable, of course, but why exaggerate and distort the truth? Her achievement speaks volumes for itself, and better filmmakers would know this and just simply shoot reality, without feeling the need to stress the success in this insultingly excessive way.

I thought the mere fact this film has become a media ‘event’ with Meryl’s performance being talked-up so much would sadly ensure it would be impossible to enjoy, any doubts about the quality of the film surrounding it withstanding. But, oh so fortunately, that isn’t the case. It doesn’t even come across as a loud and boisterous performance, and especially in the scenes as the older Thatcher, that it’s Meryl we’re watching is hardly noticeable. She still, besides the publicity, manages to entrance us, and it’s quite incredible. That slight nose-up, mouth-open half-smile mannerism is perfected, and the voice, a few scenes aside, is genuinely indistinguishable.

If only there was a respectful concern from the filmmakers for the woman’s ideology and battles to go with it. And this, in the end, is the biggest and most unforgivable screw-up. In the opening scene we see the old Thatcher take a minute to pay for a pint of milk, and evidently that is the pace that Phillida Lloyd has decided she ‘ought to strike‘. There’s no energy or arc here. It’s truly as if they thought it would do to deliver us a decent dose of dementia before sporadically dumping snippets of stereotypical 80s sexism throughout the result. The only exception is the late Falklands sequence, where we finally do get to see her thinking and resolve to stand firm in the face of a junta trying to seize our territory and enslave the people living there. But it’s all too late. By this time we’ve sat through over an hour of watching Broadbent pop up out of nowhere, before a quick history trip to footage of riots, Streep spitting at her male subordinates to stand firm by whichever policy they for whatever reason endorsed, before we’re back to loopy Broadbent and frail old Maggie again. We learn what we already know: that she battled and thought it best for the nation that she crippled the trade unions, but we don’t learn the details of the decision or why it was made.

That this is the sad truth becomes evident by the end, as, again without context, we see her ministers slowly desert her, forcing her to step down. As she strolls down the steps and out of Number 10, the message intended is the same one she has kept telling us for the past 2 hours: throughout her life, she has fought hard, ‘every day‘. She had been on a long journey, and yet we don’t see and subsequently don’t feel any of it. Instead we’ve just been dragged through a whistle-stop, trivial tour of her troubles, only to return repeatedly to her mental decline.

I saw the film as part of a ‘trip’ organised by Somerville College to the local cinema, Thatcher being our most famous alumni here. The intention had been, clearly, to see a tribute to The Iron Lady, as the film’s title had suggested it would be. But it’s nothing of the sort. It’s more interested in The Dying Lady, and any insight into the reasons for her power and positions will have to remain in the pages of books and magazines, well away from the silver screen.

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