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The Iron Lady (2011)

January 20, 2012

 

written by: Abi Morgan

produced by: Damian Jones

directed by: Phyllida Lloyd

rating: PG-13 (for some violent images and brief nudity) 

runtime: 105 min.

U.S. release date: December 30, 2011 (limited) & January 13, 2011 (wide)

 

There are common prerequisites for biographical films that have become so recognizable that a moviegoer can easily succumb to “biopic fatigue”. You know what I’m talking about. The protagonist comes from a broken home where he or she were abused, unappreciated, or ignored. At some point the inevitable addiction factors in as an obstacle to overcome, or it could be a character weakness, such as arrogance, greed, or insecurity. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been absorbed by those elements before, but it does become quite predictable after a while. Thankfully, “The Iron Lady” does not rely on such repetitive tropes. Instead we follow an elderly woman searching for relevance and significance as she reflects on her formative years as the controversial Prime Minister of England, and possibly even questioning her sanity. Because of that refreshing approach, the story is anything but linear, and as we journey through the thoughts of Margaret Thatcher, we are grateful that she is played by an equally iconic actress.

 

 When we first meet Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), she comes across as just another old lady buying milk in a corner store in London. She seems out of time, taken aback by how fast everyone is moving around her. You can tell in her eyes though, that she still has her marbles about her, even if she sees and converses with Dennis (Jim Broadbent) her deceased husband. What is most striking about this opening is Streep, convincingly and completely lost in aging makeup that brought to mind Clint Eastwood’s recent biopic, “J. Edgar”. in that film, the aging makeup was distracting and laughable, but “The Iron Lady” gets it right. The reason for that is partly because the makeup is superior and more natural-looking, but mainly because of Streep, who at no point comes across like she’s “playing old”.

 

 

The screenplay, written by playwright Abi Morgan (co-writer of the recent “Shame”) uses Thatcher’s stream of thought as a narrative time travel device, recalling memories of her pre-political youth and her eventual controversial decisions as a leader. As a young woman, she is Margaret Roberts (a splendid Alexandra Roach), influenced by her politically-minded father (Iain Glen) who strongly believes that a woman can be more than simply a wife and a mother. She doesn’t find herself interested in all the other things girls her age are, she’d rather debate or hold stimulating intellectual conversation, something that is seemingly limited to men. During this time, she meets a young man named Dennis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd) who has no problem with who she is or strives to be.

For the most part, Morgan’s screenplay provides director Phyllida Lloyd (who directed Streep in “Mamma Mia!”) the opportunity to work around the typical rise and fall we often see in biopics. Granted,  there is some of that, but fortunately the film focuses mostly on the modern-day Thatcher. In her twilight years, she turns out to be a much more interesting character than what so many know Thatcher as. Viewers will be enraptured by Streep, especially with what she brings to the aged role. Her work is so good here that even though it feels like Oscar-bait, you’re still sold by her choices, be it her physicality or her voice altering to sound like Thatcher. Streep presents us with a person, not a caricature or mimicry, which can be seen mostly in those senior moments where Thatcher is trying to make sense of her reality amid growing dementia.

 

 

Since I’ve grown tired of the typical biopic formula, I appreciated the approach here. Lloyd does give Streep the opportunity to embody Thatcher in her prime, campaigning hard and bumping heads with stiff Brit suits. “The Iron Lady” does breeze through three famous events during Thatcher’s reign: the volatile IRA presence, the Falkland Islands,  and the rising unemployment in London, but none of that is as interesting as seeing a pathetic old woman come to terms with where she’s at.  Considering I didn’t know all the details about Thatcher, I was fine with all that. Some who know more about Thatcher may expect the film to cover more ground (we only briefly get to see Thatcher’s twins, mostly her daughter as an adult), but then we’d be treading into familiar biopic territory – and who wants that?

Besides Streep’s superb performance, what remains most memorable about the film is not the power and politics of the enigmatic leader, but rather the vulnerable and fragile woman she would become. It didn’t matter at all whether or not the depiction of the senior Thatcher was accurate, since watching Broadbent and Streep work off each other is such a treat. “The Iron Lady” works best as a character study, with Thatcher as a interestingly flawed and complicated woman, who despite her divisive ideologies we still manage to sympathize with.

 

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2012 4:58 pm

    Streep’s performance is so true and so uncannily accurate, so full and so complete in its understanding, that she is fascinating every second she is onscreen. As for the film itself, the structure is a bit off and the screenplay doesn’t really give us much else other than a history lesson, but a good history lesson at that. Nice review man.

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