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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: The Iron Lady (2011)

* 1/2

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Starring: Meryl Streep

I'll get it out of the way right off the top: Meryl Streep is fantastic playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Unfortunately, revelatory as the performance may be, it is the only reason the film exists. Written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady is a frustratingly shapeless film that tries to disguise the fact that it has nothing to say by telling its story in an elliptical way and leaving it to Streep to do all the heavy lifting - well, her and the makeup crew. At least they received Oscar nominations for their trouble.

The Iron Lady is essentially three stories, none of which is told in a satisfactory way. One is the story of Thatcher's unexpected and, regardless of what you think of her politics, impressive rise to power and subsequent run as Prime Minister. One is the story of Thatcher's relationship with her husband, Denis (played by Harry Lloyd as a young man and Jim Broadbent later), and how he supported her as she subverted the traditional role women played on the public stage. The third, and the only one that is even marginally successful, involves the present-day Thatcher slipping away into dementia, carrying on conversations with the husband who is now dead, and feeling like a prisoner in her own home.

The film moves back and forth between time periods both as a means of telling the story of Thatcher's life and as a way of demonstrating her increasing inability to tell present from past. While fragmented storytelling can work well when it's done right (a great example is 2007's La Vie En Rose), here it ends up feeling reductive because it means that the film glosses over every significant event of Thatcher's time in office. It drifts from one big moment to another without really providing much in terms of context and without building any themetic momentum. One moment she's declaring her intention of running for her party's leadership and the next she's firmly established as Prime Minister. One moment the Falklands War seems lost, the next it's victory parades and rebounding approval ratings. It provides the beginnings and the endings for several smaller stories while skipping over what came between.

That Streep's performance can have any impact at all is remarkable, given how thoroughly the film is working against her and limiting her ability to create a character. Thatcher is not a sympathetic person and Streep makes sure to keep her edges sharp, but she also finds away to connect with her humanity. In the film's most affecting scenes, the present day Thatcher struggles to remain mentally present and capable, betrayed by the realities of her own mind and body. Streep's performance in these scenes strikes a delicate balance between frustration and fear and, regardless of her politics, it's difficult not to feel for the character, a once vital and commanding woman so thoroughly reduced by something completely beyond her control. Her sense of having lost power (by which I mean the power to take care of one's self rather than her political power) and her complex feelings about the husband whose spectre haunts her are sensitively and effectively played by Streep, who never lapses into caricature, even at those moments when the film seems to be demanding it.

The problems plaguing The Iron Lady are numerous but the biggest two are the story's construction and the fact that it has no real sense of purpose. I'm not sure why anyone would make a film about someone as controversial as Margaret Thatcher if they had no intention of taking any kind of position about her, but that's exactly what The Iron Lady does. There are times when it seems to be positioning itself as a feminist tale about a woman making it in a milieu dominated by men, but that only holds up in the shallowst of ways. Yes, it's impressive that Thatcher managed to become Prime Minister but feminism isn't simply about getting women into positions of power, it's about what politicians of either gender do once they're in power. As nifty as that overhead shot of a pastel clad Thatcher surrounded by a sea of black suit clad collegues may be, a more telling visual is the complete absence of other women in any of her cabinet meetings. I'm not saying that an argument can't be made that Thatcher is a feminist figure, but you have to base the idea on something more than the mere fact that she's a woman and the film failure to do so is indicative of its general laziness as a story. It's unfortunate that a performance as good as Streep's is left with nothing to support it and that a woman as ambitious as Thatcher inspired such an unambitious and empty movie.

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