Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach. Harry Lloyd, Richard E. Grant, Anthony Head, Nicholas Farrell, Iain Glen, Paul Bentley, Roger Allam, Matthew Marsh, Julia Wadham.
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Film 4, UK Film Council, Canal+, CineCinema, Goldcrest Pictures, DJ Films, Pathe, and The Weinstein Company.
Written by: Abi Morgan.
|“We will stand on principle, or we will not stand at all…” – Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep).Upon first viewing, I recoiled from Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady. Watching the manner in which Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan chose to tell the story of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher felt completely and utterly misguided, unnecessarily obtuse, and scattered. Having the ability to view the film at home, I gave up at about an hour and shut it down, turned off my television, and went to bed. And then, I got frustrated, because I rarely, if ever, fail to complete a film and so I finished watching it the next morning. And then, I watched it over again from the beginning and my walls finally came down somewhat slightly. I am now tolerant of a film that I initially found ill conceived and aggravating. I wonder if those who share that first impression will even bother to give The Iron Lady a second viewing.
That I have voiced my frustrations is not meant in any way to undermine that somehow, through the muck and mire of convoluted storytelling, The Iron Lady has an extraordinary performance from Meryl Streep which survives in spite of the film she appears in. There are no longer proper words to describe how remarkable an actress Meryl Streep truly is. Is she the greatest actor ever? Some certainly feel so. And in watching her dissolve into the role of Thatcher, it becomes increasingly difficult to make an argument against her.
The Iron Lady seems saddled with some of the same problems Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar had, which is to say, the inability to commit to a narrative that makes tangible sense to uninitiated viewers. Opening the film with Thatcher in a grocery buying a pint of milk and then sharing a breakfast with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), in her palatial estate, things…seem…off. And soon we realize that Denis is not in fact there, but a memory that Thatcher relies on to aid her in centering her thoughts and emotions as she battles the onset of dementia.
This device is used to mixed effect at best as we continually are drawn back and forth across era after era and event after event. Alexandra Roach, an actress to definitely keeps tabs on from here on out, sets the stage wonderfully in portraying Thatcher as Margaret Roberts, a grocer’s daughter, who is accepted to Oxford, and learns much of her initial political ideologies from her hard-working father (Iain Glen). Roach draws a natural link to Streep’s aged Thatcher and yet the film never settles in long enough to let the good moments resonate. Apparently in an attempt to emulate Thatcher’s mindset, Phyllida Lloyd and Abi Morgan take us back and forth, with Morgan’s screenplay serving as most complicit in the film’s pernicious failures.
When crafting a biopic, I have no issue with how anyone wishes to present that story. Here, details of important dates, events, and decisions are tossed around almost as afterthoughts. As a viewer, trying to fall in line with the cadence of The Iron Lady, I sat wrestling with the feeling that I was perpetually behind all the time, sorting this event and memory with another, and then flash forwarding back and forth and wondering, frankly, what good any of this was serving. I am not a fan of Phyllida Lloyd’s previous film, Mamma Mia!, also with Meryl Streep, and at the end of the day I am left to contemplate whether or not this project is simply too grand in scope and size for Lloyd to successfully pull off.
Good actors are middling at best here, especially Jim Broadbent, who strikes a certain level of charm as Margaret’s husband, but is outmatched in lesser scenes by his younger counterpart, Harry Lloyd. Broadbent is left with the unenviable task of playing a memory most of the time and even in flashback scenes where he is alive, we are left guessing whether or not he is really there or not. Then, we have Olivia Colman as Carol, who appears to be wearing prosthetics on her face, and changes her hair color from dark to blond and back to dark again depending on the memory Margaret is processing. She seems important enough as one of Margaret and Denis’ twin children but is relegated to a few scant scenes. Also, where is Carol’s twin brother Mark? He is nowhere to be found here at all, save a child briefly portraying him. Are they estranged? Did I miss a scene discussing why he is not around? Sorry. If I did, perhaps it was because I was trying to figure out what decade I happened to be in and where any of this might be headed.
Meryl Streep is reason enough to see The Iron Lady and she is as good as ever in the role. She works her way through impressive makeup achievement, which was Oscar-nominated along with her performance, and embodies the Prime Minister masterfully. Streep soars and the movie feels vital in scenes where Thatcher is addressing the House of Commons as its lone female member, she acquiesces to handlers who desire her to alter the tone of her voice and selected elements of her appearance, and after being elected as Prime Minister as leader of the governing Conservative Party, the sequences involving Britain’s war with Argentina in 1982 over the Falkland Islands is compelling and accessible.
However, in its totality, The Iron Lady is simply a staggering disappointment regarding everything not named Meryl Streep. The film is over-thought and ponderous, hard to follow, and insular. Abi Morgan’s screenplay never settles down and Phyllida Lloyd suffers from a play director’s background in trying to manage all of this into something digestible and engaging. As indicated above, I was distressed trying to figure out why The Iron Lady was telling its story in such a convoluted manner and only on a second watch, did I find any joy out of the film whatsoever. In the hands of a more capable and proven filmmaker, Streep’s extraordinary work would have made The Iron Lady resonate in a much more vivid and rewarding way.
Should I See It?
Meryl Streep. Period. End of sentence.
Those interested in Margaret Thatcher’s life will be drawn to see this and perhaps you can find your way through this muddled mess of a movie better than I could.
Margaret Thatcher inspired many and perhaps Meryl Streep’s performance can resonate with audiences and they can inspired by her, since Streep has to carry this entire film on her shoulders.
One of the 2011’s most staggering disappointments, The Iron Lady is a film that fails to contextualize anything it wishes to tell a viewer about Margaret Thatcher. We get events, situations, and moments yes – however, the film is so haphazardly constructed that nothing resonates long enough to be important or profound. How did this happen?
Anyone else find it alarming that Margaret Thatcher is alive, makes occasional public appearances, and in her biopic is presented as a woman fighting dementia, talking to a deceased husband she cannot always recognize as being there? Is this a tribute to the woman? I mean, with a tribute like this, who needs…
Phyllida Lloyd was the absolute wrong choice to bring this to the screen and Abi Morgan follows a bold, risky, and devastating screenplay in Shame with this unnecessarily laborious effort. I will forever wonder why this project was tackled in this manner.