MOVIE REVIEW: The Iron Lady
THE IRON LADY-- 2 STARS
Biographical films are a wonderful staple of good cinema. People love historical and celebrity subjects which creates a built-in audience of followers and admirers. Most "biopics," as they are nicknamed, come with a set of rules. Fact trumps fiction when it comes to details. People value the "based on a true story" label and don't want falsified dramatizations sullying their entertainment and fascination. Flashbacks and montages are acceptable dramatic plot devices to cover the passage of time, because no life story, or even the highlights, can fit in two or three hours. Biopics are allowed to show the flawed and unflattering sides of their subjects, but, in the end, need to be an overall celebration of their life. Nobody likes a downer, even if the story is worth telling. Add all of that together as the typical Hollywood formula for a good biopic.
To be a successful biographical film, one shouldn't veer too much from the formula. While variety is appreciated in an attempt to break formula monotony from time to time, The Iron Lady, based on the life of Britain's first female and longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher, is all over the place. You see, Margaret Thatcher, played with absolute grace and cajones by multiple Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, is still alive. At 86 and widowed, she has shied away from the public eye and is slowly fading to dementia. With Streep in heavy makeup, that's the Margaret Thatcher that presents our story, not the ballsy shining example of toughness and determination we all remember and respect.
Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), takes us through three days of the elderly Thatcher reminiscing on her early years while cleaning out her departed husband Denis's (fellow Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent) things from their home. In her fading emotional state, she still sees and talks to him even though he's gone. Their "conversations" and the pictures and items of their home are the catalysts that spur the memories and highlights that we get to observe. We meet the determined young conservative she started as, her and Denis's courtship, and her rise through the ranks of Parliament. In these flashbacks, the chameleon Meryl Streep dazzles with her spot-on portrayal of the equally beloved, equally respected, and equally reviled leader. The intensity of her acting matches the political intensity of the figure she's playing.
Too much of The Iron Lady is spent on the elderly Thatcher of the present. The flashbacks are too fleeting and the controversial political agenda that made her special is neglected too often. As a result, the Margaret Thatcher we envision is devalued. While the film is respectful of her past achievements, we can't help but want more of the Iron Lady of the past, not the Rusty Woman in the present. There are only so many times we can watch Streep's octogenarian struggle to get out of bed before that unflattering portrait overshadows the great flashbacks. Give us what we came to see.
Make no mistake. Meryl Streep is outstanding and the sole reason to seeThe Iron Lady. Easily the greatest actress of her (or any other) generation, her performance has already earned the Golden Globe and numerous critics' group awards and is Oscar-worthy, without a doubt. The role was incredibly challenging and no one else, British or American, could have performed at her level to accomplish it better. It's a shame that the rest of the movie couldn't match her effort, direction, and talent. Both Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep deserved better.
Along the same lines, it's a shame that Meryl's brilliance in every role she takes on has created this "well, she's always that good" mentality among the critics and award voters. Her 16 (soon-to-be 17) Oscar nominations are the most of any actor or actress is history and, just because she won 30 (Sophie's Choice for Best Actress) and 32 (Kramer vs. Kramer for Best Supporting Actress) years ago doesn't mean she has to continuously be passed over by younger stars every time she's nominated. For how good she always is, just two statuettes is almost insulting. It has almost become a "what else does she have to do?!" disrespect. If Hilary Swank can win two, Meryl should win seven. Though most signs point to this being young Michelle Williams's year for My Week with Marilyn, Meryl's work here in The Iron Lady is her best shot in a long time. Even though my vote (even though I don't get one) goes to Meryl's Doubt co-star Viola Davis for The Help, I'd be more than happy if Meryl got the win.
LESSON #1: IT USED TO BE ABOUT DOING SOMETHING. NOW, IT'S ABOUT BEING SOMETHING-- This is a direct quote from Meryl's Thatcher about the changing times between leaders being idols and celebrities taking their place. She's right. Too often nowadays, people are blinded with entitlement and want money, stardom, title, and/or success to come to them rather than work to achieve on their own. Margaret and her political platform of the time was rooted from her World War II youth within a generation of people that had to work to achieve. We've lost a great deal of that initiative.
LESSON #2: THE DIFFERENT WAYS PEOPLE GRIEVE-- With The Iron Lady spending a great deal of time in Margaret's present later years of dementia, we are given a look at how someone grieves. Her Denis was her rock, the man who kept her grounded and gave her perspective and support. Without him, she has waned into a different person and misses him so much that she allows herself to still see him through hallucinations.
LESSON #3: THE IMPORTANCE OF STRONG LEADERSHIP-- The incredible responsibility of being Britain's Prime Minister demanded strong leadership and an even stronger resolve. Margaret had those qualities and more, especially as the first woman to fill the role. She carried herself above her critics and questioning public with unmatched determination, focus, and courage. No decision broke her will and she stayed the course to what she believed above influence.