Movie Review: The Iron Lady
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Director Phyllida Lloyd made an interesting choice in selecting Margaret Thatcher as a subject for her recent feature, "The Iron Lady." The mundane and uninspired way in which she tells the story compounds her curious decision.
Though Thatcher is certainly one of the most important women of the past 50 years, most people younger than 35 likely know little about the intriguing former prime minister, cutting the potential audience. Which is not to say that Thatcher is not worthy of a feature film. But if there is going to be a film about the conservative leader, giving a detailed account of her rise to power and contextualizing the massively influential decisions she made in office and how they reverberate today would seem to be the story that would best entertain and inform viewers. Instead, Lloyd unnecessarily and confusingly tells the story through the eyes of an aging Thatcher suffering from dementia.
The result is a hollow film with all of the dramatic appeal of a made-for-TV-movie. Even the unparalleled talents of Meryl Streep, who once again proves her genius at accents and vocal mimicry, can't save "The Iron Lady."
Though little has been written in the press about Thatcher over the past 10 years, she has been suffering from the deteriorating effects of dementia. We see this at the beginning of the film as Thatcher has a conversation over breakfast with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), whom we quickly come to learn is a shade. He died in 2002, but Thatcher still leans solely on him for almost all of her meaningful personal interactions.
Thatcher's conversations with Denis reveal a more playful and gentle side of the Iron Lady and set up opportunities for reflection on her life and career as told through the film's ubiquitous flashbacks. But eventually the narrative device of Denis Thatcher as consulting ghost devolves into obnoxious gimmickry.
Margaret (played in her youth by Alexandra Roach) meets Denis in her 20s, when her political career is in its nascent stages. Harry Lloyd plays the young Denis, and outside of a goofy smile and willingness to aid Thatcher as she pursues her political ambitions, we learn little about what may have sparked a romance between the two. The lack of meaningful background on their relationship keeps the audience from having any emotional investment in Thatcher's relationship with her husband's ghost.
What we do learn of unmarried Margaret Thatcher (née Robinson) was that she was a "grocer's daughter," a term used derisively later in life by Thatcher's critics to describe her modest upbringing. From her father, she learned a staunch work ethic and the importance of having a vested interest in political machinations. Her mother appears briefly as meek and subservient, an anti-role model whose life Margaret had little interest in replicating.
Thatcher's home life as a child is given slightly more context than that of her family as an adult. We know the couple had a son and daughter, but outside of occasional visits from daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) and a long-distance phone call from son Mark, we get little sense of the Thatcher family's interpersonal relationships. There are glimpses of Thatcher as absentee parent, her time absorbed by political life, but as with much of the movie, the domestic instability is only hinted at and not developed.
What is most compelling about Thatcher's early life is how she ascended to her historic position, a quantum move that certainly involved more than just overcoming a high-pitched voice and the misogyny of her peers. But where did her hunger for power come from? The film offers no great clues.
Thatcher's time in office is a whiplash collage of flashbacks and newsreel footage that will likely be cobbled together into a cohesive whole only by those with a better-than-average understanding of history. There is the bloody violence perpetrated by the IRA, union busting, deregulation and, maybe most compellingly, the Falklands War. But all of these major pieces of her political story are given short shrift.
Regardless of one's individual politics, it is inarguable that Thatcher deserves to be understood in a more rounded way. She was the first and only female prime minister of the United Kingdom, held office for an entire decade, and her Randian political and social theory had a massive effect on her people and modern politics. The movie, unlike recent profiles of public figures, never feels overtly political, but it plays it safe to such a degree that it never seems to have a consistent point of view. The whole enterprise feels rushed and unfocused.
The set design of present-day Thatcher at home is a cloudy mist of blues and whites, hinting at her foggy state of mind and a heavenly purgatory. The flashbacks are telegraphed with the subtlety of a Hallmark card. The aging Thatcher stares blankly into space or at an old photograph for a few beats before we are transported to the tilted angles, crisp colors and unsteady camera of the past. Archival news footage gives a pulse to past events that shaped Thatcher's time in office, but the jarring and brief footage adds a third texture to the incongruous tone.
The most affecting part of the movie comes from the examination of what happens when a former world leader is reduced to being just another old person suffering the effects of aging. Seeing Thatcher, a woman comprised of such fierce fire and intimidating ice, in declining health reminds us that time is eventually unkind to us all. But why are we forced to view this part of the woman's life without examining what made her great and flawed? The movie feels mean while at the same time trying to make the audience feel sympathy.
Streep, who disappears behind the latex face, shrill voice and piercing glances of Thatcher, will undoubtedly be nominated for a 17th Oscar. But the great actress offers the only bright point to an otherwise dull film. With a world-class talent and a fascinating subject, one is simply left feeling disappointed by what could have been with "The Iron Lady."