Friday, January 13, 2012

The Iron Lady

Memories Of An Infamous Reign In Britain

Meryl Streep as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd's drama "The Iron Lady". 
The Weinstein Company   


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, January 13, 2012

"Iron Lady" director
Phyllida Lloyd does a wise thing in her film, which expanded its theatrical release in the U.S. today: she starts her story in the present day, with an aged Margaret Thatcher as a figure of antiquity, withered and left behind by a new multicultural, short-attention spanned Britain, one very different from the one she ruled over as prime minister for more than 11 years from 1979 to late 1990.  (I was born and raised in England, grew up there, and am very familiar with Mrs. Thatcher and the controversy and infamy she engendered.) 

Ms. Lloyd makes Baroness Thatcher a sympathetic figure, one haunted by her own reverie, loneliness and singularity.  "The Iron Lady", which is a series of flashbacks and memories in the mind of its chief subject, showcases a powerful woman as vulnerable figure, offering a side of Mrs. Thatcher that's either invented or one rarely displayed while in office as the leader of the Conservative Party at 10 Downing Street.  "The Iron Lady" has a faded gloss even as it buffs up a shine on the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.

Less an autobiographical film than a kind, rounded look at an independent-minded woman of ambition, passion, scorn and often withering indifference and insensitivity, Ms. Lloyd's drama covers Thatcher's political highs and lows as one of the Tories -- from her triumph and re-election as the only woman prime minister in Britain, to the garbage strike in the early 1980s, the Falklands War, her privatization initiatives, the tax-the-poor-at-higher-rates outrage riots against the "Toffs" in 1990 and beyond, the Brixton and Tottenham riots of the mid-1980s -- yet somehow manages to avoid the National Union Of Mineworkers strike and Arthur Scargill's fight against Mrs. Thatcher.  The history of Mrs. Thatcher's political reign is something that is glanced at more than seriously examined, yet Ms. Lloyd is brave enough to even put a film like this on the big screen, and quickly spotlight the prime minister's many undignified moments, but I wish she had delved deeper.  

Still, Meryl Streep is impeccable in the title role, a sly perfectionist at mimicry and timing down to every breath, cough and inflection -- and done so effortlessly that you submit once again to her greatness.  Ms. Streep may have performed her best mimic here of those she's done prior, and while it isn't her best performance, it's one of her better efforts.  Expect her to be called out as an Oscar nominee in eleven days' time.  "The Iron Lady" -- in England the working class and poor called Mrs. Thatcher a lot worse than the film's title the Soviets coined for her -- travels in circular directions, and is a polite, generous and genteel-natured look at Thatcher's relationship with perception, reality, her own image and that of her relationship with best friend and husband Denis (played wonderfully by Jim Broadbent). 

"The Iron Lady" covers the bases of her family background as a doer not a feeler adequately enough though not going beyond the surface.  The film doesn't stretch its focus or ambitions beyond the shadowy recollections and ruminations of its central figure.  In a way Ms. Lloyd's film is stuck in a time warp, although it recognizes that in many quarters in Britain Ms. Thatcher, even with the passage of time, is still a radioactive and polarizing figure.  More than a few Brits, for example, expressed regret that Mrs. Thatcher escaped harm in a Brighton hotel bombing by the Irish Republican Army in 1983. 

In "Shame" co-screenwriter Abi Morgan's script, "The Iron Lady" is less revisionist than romanticized, and any reverence it has for Lady Thatcher is shown in actual archival footage, off-screen voices and the thoughts of Ms. Thatcher herself.  It is useful to remember that this film happens entirely in the mind of Mrs. Thatcher, and she is not necessarily its most reliable narrator.  Students of history will be keenly aware of this, even if members of the current generation may not.

In a sense "The Iron Lady" plays like part of a travelogue through Ms. Streep's acting career.  Ms. Streep has become more famous over the last 20 years for playing famous or real-life people ("Music Of The Heart", "Devil Wears Prada", "Manchurian Candidate", "Adaptation.", "Julie & Julia") than for playing character roles.  Renewed adoration for her acting acumen is not without merit.  Most interestingly, there's a scene in Ms. Lloyd's film in Mrs. Thatcher's early days in the House Of Commons during Question Time, where Ms. Streep looks not like the prime minister but like Ms. Streep in a baby powder blue suit and hat.  This scene is one of the film's surreal moments, and feels like a tribute to the actress.  If it's not the image of Streep's Thatcher playing Ms. Streep herself, it's pretty darn close.  One may argue that Ms. Streep always plays herself first before her characters, but it's hard to deny that her technique achieves the results that count, for this film would be ever more lost without her grandeur.

Of the latest films to chronicle controversial or notorious political figures ("J. Edgar", "The Conquest"), "The Iron Lady" floats uneasily somewhere in the middle.  Ms. Lloyd's film could do more with the events it portrays, but overall "The Iron Lady" lacks energy.  You can feel the life of this film ebb away, scene by scene, growing more tired as Mrs. Thatcher grows old.  

With: Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Iain Glen, Emma Dewhurst, Victoria Bewick.

"The Iron Lady" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some violent images and brief nudity.  The film's running time is one hour and 45 minutes.

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