“The Iron Lady” Has Streep, But Not Much Else


The Iron Lady Poster

“The Iron Lady” (2011) is maddeningly frustrating.  You watch the movie mesmerized by the performance of the lead, yet realize, as the movie stumbles forward, that the script and the direction of the film makes it entirely forgettable if it wasn’t for that performance.

The film tells the life story of Margaret Thatcher through a series of flashbacks from the eyes of Thatcher of today.  Thatcher lost her husband, Dennis, a long time ago but still sees and talks to him.  After all the years since she lost Dennis, she has finally decided to dispose of his things.  The different items she goes through triggers the flashbacks.

And these flashbacks covers all of the major events of Thatcher’s life.  There is her childhood as a daughter of a grocer, which taught her that people should rely on themselves rather than the government; her first run for parliament, which was unsuccessful but led to her marriage to Dennis; her challenge to the leadership, propelled by her frustration with what she deemed a weak leadership under the compromising then-premier; her permiership, as a strong proponent of maker liberalization; her uncompromising response to the developments in the Falkland Islands, which fueld her popularity; and her fall from power, propelled by her party member’s belief that she doesn’t listen.

Streep’s performance as Thatcher (Alexandra Roach plays  Thatcher satisfactorily in the early years) is so convincing, it’s uncanny.  Streep is the mirror image of video clips of the real Margaret Thatcher, in mannerisms, actions and words, in her private moments and in Parliament.  Throughout the film, I not once mistook Thatcher for Streep, credit for which must partly go to Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland who did the make-up and won a well-earned Academy Award for it.  I have also never seen an actor who so brilliantly captured an aging person as Streep does in this film.  Streep gives a stunning performance.

The film unfortunately doesn’t have much more going for it.  That’s a shame because Margaret Thatcher is a facinating topic. She is known, not just for being the first female prime minister or her long length of office,  but also for the controversies she generated in both domestic and foreign affairs.  She no doubt earned the nickname “The Iron lady” through her strong-willed, uncompromising ways, but the film seems to miss every opportunity to explore this.

Take, for example, the most facinating question of all: how she, a woman, rose to become prime minister of Great Britain.  Considering that America even today hasn’t produced a female president, it’s quite remarkable that Great Britain was able to create a female leader over 30 years ago, and a very successful one at that.  One can only imagine what Thatcher had to go through to rise through power in a male-dominated world of the 1970s.  The problem with the film, though, is precisely that one has to imagine Thatcher’s challenges.  The film has scenes in which Thatcher talks about how difficult it was for a woman to rise to the top, but we don’t see enough of her in action.

Or take the issue of the unions.  The film makes the point that this was a crucial theme in Thatcher’s political career; it’s referenced when she’s a backbencher, then when she’s a minister of education and throughout when she’s the prime minister.  But we learn nothing concrete about her struggles agains the unions.  What were the unions demanding, what was Britain like at the time, why was she so vehemently against unions, did Thatcher ultimately prevail?  None of these issues are analyzed.  Instead, we see archives footages of chaos in London arising in response to Thatcher’s uncompromising position, whatever and whyever that may have been.  Thatcher may have been the “Iron Lady,” but the film does little more than in have her give speeches to parliament and  cabinet ministers.

In watching the film, I couldn’t but feel that the film aimed too high by trying to cover every aspect of Thatcher’s life, and ultimately failed to portray anything well.  Aiming high and not succeeding isn’t the worst of sins, but I was perplexed with some of the choices the director made.  For starters, the film mixes in archived footages of England during the Thatcher era far too liberally, whether in depicting the riots or the Falkland War.  If there is one film that didn’t need space fillers, a life story of Thatcher would be it.

But far more unnecessary was the focus on the present-day Thatcher and her attempt to let go of her memories of Dennis.  Merryl Streep can pull off this melodramatic storyline, but I kept on asking, why oh why was this necessary?  The theme of a strong-willed “Iron Lady” was more than enough to keep the film together if it was fully developed.  Instead, the film spends an inordinate amount of time on the modern-day Thatcher to push the narrative forward.  Not only is this distracting, but it is also difficult to bare.  The modern-day Thatcher is showing clear signs of dementia.  I’m not sure anyone watching a movie about Thatcher wants to see her depicted in that light, not when the focus (and the title) of the film is about Thatcher being the “Iron Lady.”

“The Iron Lady” has concluded its run in the United States and is finishing its run in Japan.


2 Responses to ““The Iron Lady” Has Streep, But Not Much Else”

  1. 1 Jay the Elitist April 16, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    What an elitist movie you decided to watch Joe! The hyprocrisy is astounding!

    • 2 joesas April 16, 2012 at 8:07 pm

      This was a distinctly Hollywood, common-man movie. And I reviewed it like the common man. I bet your elitist review will read like the New York Times’, lecturing us on the past accomplishments of the people who won the oscar for Streep’s makeup.

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