17 January 2012

Streep’s ‘The Iron Lady’

Another Oscar would go so nicely
next to the Golden Globes on the mantel.

Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, an unconventional biopic about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played by Meryl Streep), is about the qualities of leadership, and is aimed at those audiences who buy books on “Leadership” and who quote Winston Churchill at parties… no, start over.

The Iron Lady is an unconventional love story that proves that behind every great woman, there is a great man (Harry Lloyd as the younger Denis Thatcher, Jim Broadbent as the older)… no, start over.

The Iron Lady is a Joan Crawford movie in modern dress, about the personal costs of a woman’s career, as Thatcher neglects her children and her husband recedes into the background, leaving her alone….

Maybe The Iron Lady is about the importance of upholding principle… no, not really.

No matter how this picture looks when it is cropped, these gentlemen are not giving Margaret Thatcher a Nazi salute.

The Iron Lady is a disease-of-the-week movie about senile dementia, which brings low even the mightiest…. The Iron Lady is a dreamplay about memory, which holds even the departed close to heart….

Well, to tell the truth, I had no idea what The Iron Lady was about, after sitting through a 104-minute movie that seems much longer than it is. Director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan stubbornly, almost courageously refuse to take a point of view about anything in the picture.

At least The Iron Lady is absolutely and categorically not about politics. And this is why it may have been perfectly all right for me to see it on Martin Luther King Day, though the subjects of movie and holiday almost surely would have clashed in life. (Can you imagine the protest marches Dr. King might’ve led against Thatcher’s treatment of the coal miners?)

Be patient, keep a stiff upper lip, and the real subject of the picture will come to me, I assure you.
But perhaps you’d better pour yourself a cup of tea while you wait.

Ultimately, The Iron Lady is about Meryl Streep, who portrays Margaret Thatcher in middle and old age and who is the whole excuse for the exercise. She gives a remarkable performance, a celebration of a powerful woman who is either Margaret Thatcher or Meryl Streep herself, and it really doesn’t matter which.

Watching her, Americans will regret that we cannot confer knighthoods upon our actors, as the English do. Perhaps there are others who could be made to look and sound more like Margaret Thatcher (in Britain she’s usually mimicked by men), and surely there are plenty of actresses who are more British. But when the question of authority comes up at one point in the film, you think, “Aha! That’s it — that’s why Dame Meryl is the only actress today who could give this performance — she has authority.”

Because then The Iron Lady is a movie about Dame Meryl Streep, the filmmakers are keenly interested in humanizing Margaret Thatcher, because, no matter how evil you think Thatcher is (and some people do hold strong opinions), Dame Meryl does not play inhuman characters: even Miranda Priestley turned out to have an inner life.

Behind every great woman: Jim Broadbent plays Denis Thatcher as an older man, and also as a deceased man.

Here, humanizing Margaret Thatcher is done primarily through scenes depicting her with husband Denis, both before and after his death, and he turns out to be an entirely adorable fellow indeed, a gentle clown, as patient with Margaret as he is proud of her.

Just in case this wasn’t enough humanity for you, Phyllida Lloyd has cast Jim Broadbent as Denis. Not only is Broadbent very good at such roles, having played a lot of them, but he has also been amassing quite a reserve of audience affection for himself personally, so that we’re inclined to think he’s sweet no matter what he’s doing. Harry Lloyd, as the young Denis, is even more charming and probably too good-looking ever to turn into Jim Broadbent, but we don’t mind.

A great deal of work is crammed into very few scenes for Alexandra Roach, who plays young Margaret. It’s up to her to convey Thatcher’s pain at being snubbed by male chauvinists and upper-class twits; it’s also up to her to convey Thatcher’s worship of her father and terror that she’ll turn out like her own Mum.

The sweetest scene in the picture: Young Denis (Harry Lloyd) proposes to Young Margaret (Alexandra Roach).

And yet, in a curious reflection of the scenes in which Thatcher is carefully trained and groomed for higher office, it’s hard to take this movie’s Thatcher seriously until she turns into Meryl Streep. Roach isn’t supposed to have authority, of course, but because she doesn’t, we’re just biding our time until Dame Meryl returns.

In the realm of politics, everyone else gets short shrift with the possible exception of Geoffrey Howe (played by Anthony Head), who has a lot of screen time if not many lines. Richard E. Grant is instantly recognizable as Richard E. Grant, not so much as the politician he plays, but it doesn’t matter because he vanishes almost immediately. As for the actor who plays John Major — well, you assume he’s John Major, because the resemblance is uncanny, but in truth he never opens his mouth, and really you’re just guessing.

For a long time, Dame Meryl was the prime contender for the film of Evita. Watching this picture, I saw definite clues as to how she would have played Señora Perón.
I also wished Iron Lady were a musical.

Did Thatcher save Britain? Was her idea of Britain worth the suffering she inflicted? The movie does in fact raise these questions, but never gets around to answering them.

Does Dame Meryl save the picture? Yes. Does Phyllida Lloyd inflict too much suffering, with her meandering moviemaking? Yes. (And dear Heaven, Lloyd already made Mamma Mia! You don’t get many more free passes after a crime like that.)

You will not really learn much about Margaret Thatcher’s life, and still less about your own, from watching The Iron Lady. But you will see a very fine actress in a very challenging role, one that is almost certain to win her another Oscar.

If that’s your idea of a good time, don’t let me stop you.
Frankly, next time I might prefer to see her play Batman.


William V. Madison said...

According to Wikipedia, where everything is true, Harry Lloyd is not in fact related to Phyllida Lloyd. He is, however, directly descended from Charles Dickens.

Mikebench said...

It is indeed a great performance by Meryl Streep (how could it not be?), but my main beef is with the director (and the writer); when you refuse to have a point of view on someone as polarizing as Margaret Thatcher - someone who was seen as evil incarnate by a whole segment of the British population (and by us Froggies, but that's understandable...), I think you end up giving a positive image of that person. Every one of her "bons mots" are great acting moments, but the uninformed/unsuspecting viewers are never really given the true context of said tirades, and so they can never judge whether M. Thatcher is being incredibly clever or simply monstrous... As we say in French, "Qui ne dit mot, consent"; "He who remains silent, agrees"...

Also, I have often asked myself what Queen Elizabeth II thought of her, and I recently read that she did not like her. I can see why; whatever one thinks of British monarchy, I do feel that the Queen deeply cares for her people (even from a distance...); she must have seen just how much Maggie Thatcher truly despised most of those people...

John Yohalem said...

I enjoyed your review very much, Bill, and it has saved me $13 I will probably waste seeing some Bresson at Film Forum. (or The Artist. I still haven't seen that).

But I don't understand how you can say Meryl (that cute girl I fell in love with when she played Dunyasha in Cherry Orchard as if she lived in some universe on which none of the other characters intruded, just her own la-di-dah dreamtime, which was so wrong and so RIGHT and so Chekhov) is the only actress with the authority to play Lady T, as Yelena Vasilievna (or Dame Helen as she is sometimes known) has already played the Queen. In fact, I would back her to do a Bette Davis turn as both the Queen and Mad Margaret in the same vehicle someday, though with a different director. What's Charles Ludlam up to? Oh. Never mind.

Streep as Batman? Well ... Spiderman perhaps.

William V. Madison said...

Mikebench, a thought occurred to me this afternoon, long after I'd posted this essay. In the film, Thatcher tells a political opponent that he'd do well to pay more attention to what she says than to how she says it.

Whereas of course the film demands just the opposite of the audience: we are all supposed to pay attention to how Dame Meryl speaks, without thinking twice about what she's actually saying.

John, the "Batman" line is actually an allusion to the character Cameron on the TV show Modern Family, who's a Streep fanatic and once opined that she'd be brilliant even if she played the Caped Crusader.

Mikebench said...

Very true, Bill! I didn't remember that line, but i also tried to forget the movie as fast as I could... LOL

And if we're not careful, Cam may dress Lily as Maggie Thatcher for next year's Halloween episode!!!!

William V. Madison said...

I love the idea of dressing Lily as Streep as Thatcher! Clutching a Ken-doll Oscar!

John Yohalem said...

Yes, Mike, the Queen detested Thatcher though of course never said so. And Thatcher was livid (under the pancake) when there were victory celebrations and the Queen showed up, looking dowdy and grim, and simply stole the show, including top billing.

Mussolini reacted the same way, when he came to Termini Station to welcome Hitler (head of state of Germany) only to have the tiny, disregarded Victor Emmanuel III appear (legal head of state of Italy) to stand in front of Il Duce on this formal occasion.

Monarchy does have its elegant little part to play, even today.

Anonymous said...

Glad I read this before going to see the movie so I'd know it was about Meryl Streep. That was a good enough reason to go, despite the unsatisying mishmash of themes. SK

William V. Madison said...

Well, it's not quite the same as Cam dressing up as Thatcher on Modern Family, but we note that Glee's Kurt Hummel (played by Chris Colfer) now boasts a Margaret Thatcher dog, a stuffed toy used to cheer up Blaine Anderson (played by Darren Criss).