Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”
The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Written by Abi Morgan
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent and Richard E. Grant
Run Time: 105 minutes
Yes, it’s possible to have a great performance in a not so great movie. Meryl Streep is astonishing as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” She plays Thatcher from her exhilarating political days to her dotage andskillfully portrays Thatcher’s voice, posture and mannerisms. Aided by her great talent and miraculous make-up, Streep’s acting turns Thatcher into a would-be Shakespearian tragic figure. Now, if Streep had been given a better screenplay to work with, we would have a memorable movie, as opposed to merely a memorable performance.
The film opens as an old lady in a kerchief shuffles slowly down the street to buy milk. It gradually becomes apparent that the woman is an aged Margaret Thatcher. Although she chats continually with her long-time understanding husband, Denis (the excellent Jim Broadbent), we come to understand that he has been dead for some time.
Thatcher lives isolated in a comfortable house accompanied by nurses and an armed guard. Beloved son Mark and his family live in South Africa and never seem to find the time to visit. Her daughter, Carol,or the illusion of her daughter (Olivia Colman) visits and tries to help her still stubborn and unappreciative mother. Thatcher, largely alone and forgotten, measures out her life in coffee spoons.
“The Iron Lady” is a film in flashbacks, including the days leading up to the 1982 Falklands Islands War. Thatcher flashes back to her initiation in local politics, her romance with Denis, her rise in government and her days as Prime Minister.
Unfortunately, the film never gets below the surface of her politics and her persona. She seems to be living in a world of her own creation. We see her orate and control, as she fights the labor unions, sells government assets, and retakes the Falkland Islands (“Not on my watch!”). Thatcher appears unconcerned when unions strike. The scenes in which picketers surround her limo are reminiscent of a crowd attempting to overthrow a dictator. And she doesn’t foresee or understand the Conservative Party’s overthrow of her government.
The film never helps the viewer grasp Thatcher’s political thinking, since the only insight given is her father’s oft-quoted aphorisms. In the film, Thatcher says to her doctor, ”Feelings do not interest me.” … ”Thoughts and ideas are what matter the most. What we think is what we become. My father always said that. And I think I am fine.”
Very little is made of Thatcher’s playing a man’s game or her reactions to the sexist offenses she endures. Her misplaced idealism, her indifference to her failings and nonchalant disregard of the social collapse that follows her decisions leave us with dislike, not pity or empathy.
Thatcher’s misperception of her Premiership is both the breakdown of the film and its failed attempt at tragedy. As is clear from its title, “The Iron Lady” is not a tragic figure. A tragic hero is a virtuous person who falls from great heights because of the hero’s error, weakness or flaw. Yes, Thatcher has many flaws, but she doesn’t act out of weakness and never gains awareness of the consequences of her actions.
Despite Streep’s great performance, “The Iron Lady” never seems to find its purpose or direction as it wavers between a touching story about a sympathetic old woman and a cautionary tale of hubris gone wild.
(c)Emily S. Mendel 2012 All Rights Reserved