Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: "The Iron Lady"

In 2007 Marion Cotillard won the Academy Award for Best Actress for La vie en rose (released in its native France as La Môme). Cotillard was fantastic in the otherwise forgettable film, and won the award against heavily favoured Julie Christie (Away From Her). In 2012 Meryl Streep is on the precipice of repeating Cotillard's feat. The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd's biographical film about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, unfortunately chooses to set the film during a 24 hour period in 2011. Thatcher is 86 years old and the story does the celebrated and controversial world leader a disservice by making the film more about her current disabilities rather than about her will, hence the nickname The Iron Lady. The Iron Lady is only Phyllida Lloyd's second feature film. She teamed with Meryl Streep in 2008 for the dreadful adaptation of the ABBA stageplay Mamma Mia! Meryl Streep instantly makes any film a must-see and I will go as far as to assume that Lloyd was awarded the opportunity to direct The Iron Lady because of the incredible financial success of Mamma Mia!, which has to be attributed to Streep's presence and the international success of Mamma Mia! on stage. With a more critical eye, one would notice that Mamma Mia! lacked direction and the same problem plagues The Iron Lady. Abi Morgan's (also responsible for penning 2011's Shame) screenplay does not help the film succeed. I wanted to see more about Margaret Thatcher and her rise to power through British parliament, and not a story about a woman haunted by her dead husband and the ridiculous symbolism related to Thatcher's childhood as a grocer's daughter. I must say that the film's makeup is fantastic and Streep fully embodies Thatcher's character, but it is not reason enough to see a completely mismanaged film. The Iron Lady features a tour de force performance from Meryl Streep and may win her a third Oscar (the first in my lifetime), but the film focuses too heavily on present-day Thatcher when the magic of the story is in her past.

Margaret Thatcher (Streep) became Prime Minister of Britain in 1979. She was the first female Prime Minister in British history, and the longest serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century. She was a controversial figure and was the target of a lot of hatred during the 1980s for her stance on the economy and unions. In 2011, Thatcher is slowly becoming more senile and and losing her grip on reality. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) comes to spend the night to help her mother part with her father's belongings. Denis Thatcher (an underused Jim Broadbent) died in 2003 and Margaret has spent the better part of eight years unable to part with any of his possessions and frequently interacting with his ghost. Through a series of flashbacks we see a young Margaret Thatcher (Alexandra Roach), the daughter of a grocer who is accepted to Oxford University. She does not want to become her mother, the quiet woman hiding behind her husband without a voice of her own. She meets Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd, known to CineCritical as Viserys Targaryen on HBO's Game of Thrones) and he encourages her role in politics. Denis champions Margaret's desire to have a voice, but there is some tension when she announces her intentions to run for leader of the Conservative Party. Thatcher was an impressive woman and rarely backed down. The film at least follows her life chronologically even thought we are forced to constantly return to her present day fragility.

In his 2-star review of The Iron Lady, Roger Ebert also comments on Phyllida Lloyd's quesitonable directorial skills, going as far as to call Mamma Mia! a low point in Streep's career. I had barely turned seven when Margaret Thatcher stepped down as Prime Minister (28 November, 1990) and was probably a teenager before I even realized she existed. I know the Falklands War happened in 1982, but I do not really know the whole story. Thatcher was heavily disliked and criticized for most of her eleven year reign as Prime Minister. She was, and still is, a polarizing figure in world politics. But The Iron Lady, whose title is derived from her strong willpower and refusal to surrender, does not paint Thatcher as either a conqueror or a bully. We see a fragile woman trying to relive her glory days even though she is not allowed to leave her own home unaccompanied. There are so many problems with The Iron Lady that I am unsure why it was even made. It has a similar central problem to Michelle Williams' Oscar vehicle My Week with Marilyn: it focuses too heavily on a brief period and offers little else. Meryl Streep is a brilliant actress - the best of a generation - but it is increasingly frustrating when her performance is the glue which holds a fragile product together. Would Julie & Julia have been as good without her? The Devil Wears Prada? Music of the Heart? I think it is time for Meryl Streep to start picking projects based on director and not on the role!

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

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