Monday, January 16, 2012

The Iron Lady

THE IRON LADY (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

The Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) seen at the opening of THE IRON LADY is anything but the tough and focused politician that comes to mind at the mention of her name.  She’s introduced as a confused old woman trying to remain self-sufficient despite being regularly engaged in conversation with the hallucination of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent).  As she goes through their possessions, she remembers her humble beginning as a grocer’s daughter to her ascent to membership in Parliament and eleven and a half years as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

THE IRON LADY is akin to a procrastinating student’s hastily written term paper about Thatcher.  It’s poorly structured, free of context, and superficial.  There’s this lady who got sick, but she did a bunch of stuff leading Great Britain and here’s some of those things.

In a serious misstep, screenwriter Abi Morgan organizes this whirlwind tour of Thatcher’s life and career around the illness in her later years.  Whatever one thinks of Thatcher’s political achievements, they are what make this story worth telling, not her failing health.  Sporadic flashbacks break up THE IRON LADY’s first half hour, which wastes time looking at her current daily life.  This section and the recurring visits to present day are in service of making her a pitiable character.  Putting her declining mental acuity in the foreground has no dramatic value other than as a cheap ploy to enhance an already sympathetic biographical portrayal.

THE IRON LADY skims over a miniseries worth of events and crises in its timeline, particularly from Thatcher’s stint as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.  Without a foreknowledge of British politics much of it passes by as archival news footage and recreations in which Thatcher sticks to her guns and gets the results she wants.  Little effort is given to exploring what challenges she faces and how she arrives at her decisions.  (For the most part, it seems her guiding principles stem from a speech she heard her dad give long ago.)  In trying to treat the conservative leader fairly, THE IRON LADY largely avoids digging into the difficult issues or dissenting opinions.  It’s a matter of needing dramatic balance and narrative coloring rather than ideological evenness.  THE IRON LADY just assumes Thatcher is always correct and leaves it at that.       

Thatcher advances and triumphs because that’s what her biography states.  Streep delivers a fine technical performance, as is to be expected, but there’s only so much she can do with a role that’s as flimsy as a construction paper figure in an elementary school student’s diorama.  The barriers to winning a bigger role in the party and government are laid out in a scene with political strategists, yet what was presumably a defining period of time in her life is quickly smoothed over by Thatcher asserting that she must wear her pearls and taking a vocal lesson ripped from THE KING’S SPEECH.  With everything, including the most pivotal moments, rendered in shorthand, THE IRON LADY diminishes the accomplishments of the person whose story it tells and the actress working so hard to offer a well-rounded embodiment of her.

Grade: D+


  1. I get where you're coming from, but I'd have to say this is the most incredible movie I've ever seen. I think her elderly life should be in the foreground, and is the purpose of the film, not her political history. I don't know if you actually know anybody, or have any close family who suffers from dementia, but I do. I know how it feels to watch a person you love more than your own self forget who you are, and this movie depicts and raises awareness of something far, far more important to an individual and her immediate family than what she has done in the past, regardless of who she is, and what she has done. Just sayin'.

  2. This review is spot on.