Streep's Thatcher shines in a dull biopic
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan 13, 2012
Can a performance be too good?
Meryl Streep disappears so uncannily into former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" that her performance overpowers the movie it's in - a perfectly executed triple axel that renders everything else just featureless ice.
The problem is that filmgoers who come to "The Iron Lady" to see Streep in action will see only that: an actress at the top of her game, delivering a bravura performance - not a thoughtful, provocative portrait of one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century.
That "The Iron Lady" fails on this count, of course, isn't the fault of Streep but of director Phyllida Lloyd, who with screenwriter Abi Morgan has made a biopic that manages to be triumphalist and insulting at the same time, reducing Thatcher's remarkable life to a series of psycho-biographical touchpoints and superficial montages.
Framed as a sequence of flashbacks Thatcher reflects on in late retirement, "The Iron Lady" dwells at length on the mental and physical frailties that have attended her later years. The result may be a more vulnerable, sympathetic portrait than the title suggests, but it also forces the filmmakers to leave far more vital aspects of her life and career on the cutting room floor.
Instead, we get a version of Thatcher's life that's one part Oprah and one part Wikipedia. After an admittedly ingenious opening segment featuring an anonymous elderly Thatcher buying milk for her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent at his marvelous, open-hearted best), "The Iron Lady" takes filmgoers back to Margaret's early years as the daughter of a conservative shop owner who, when his daughter tells him she has won a place at Oxford, tells her not to let him down. Lloyd and Morgan then tell a story that casts Thatcher both as a consummate father-pleaser and flinty feminist rebel, an impatient martinet in a bouffant and brooch who is fully capable of flirting when circumstances dictate.
The effect is like watching a new kind of genre - the political rom-com, with Denis and Margaret courting to a Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and later with the leading lady even getting her own makeover, in this case a sequence reminiscent of "The King's Speech," wherein she loses her querulous trill, fixes her hair and streamlines her look. Centered on Streep's meticulously researched characterization - which nails the imperious stare, the predatory stoop, the breathy but insistently inflected speaking style - "The Iron Lady" becomes a study in rhetoric and personal style, and little else.
The confounding result is a portrait of a woman devoted to ideas that spends virtually no time on their substance. The political fallout of her positions - on everything from labor unions to coping with the Irish Republican Army - is illustrated by collections of sound and image, some gathered from news footage of real events.
But nowhere in "The Iron Lady" is any substantive argument engaged regarding the historical roots of Thatcherism, its effect on Britain or its lasting impact on the country's political culture. (For that, see the far more incisive Tony Blair movies written by Peter Morgan and starring Michael Sheen.)
As adamantly un-intellectual as "The Iron Lady" is, it's still undeniably entertaining, especially when Streep and Broadbent go at their roles hammer-and-tongs. (He smiles indulgently even when she speechifies over making breakfast toast.)
Still, the film seems more confounded by Thatcher the wife-and-mother than Thatcher the prime minister: While Lloyd clearly sympathizes with the young wife who tells Denis she won't "die while washing up a teacup," washing a teacup is precisely where she leaves her heroine decades later.
"The Iron Lady" is a curious piece of work, leaving viewers with the sense that its subject has been both lionized and punished, but in neither case fully or fairly understood.
Contains some violent images and brief nudity.