For months before it was released, The Iron Lady generated an almost electric excitement: Meryl Streep taking on Margaret Thatcher seemed like a marriage made in Academy Award heaven.

And, as expected, Streep got a well-deserved Oscar nomination (her 17th) shortly after winning a Golden Globe for the role a couple of weeks ago. Her performance is a wonder. If you’re one of those who’ve resisted the pull of the magnetic Meryl so far, see the movie! It’s unfortunate, though, that catching it entails sitting through a film that misses the mark on so many levels. Streep, as well as Thatcher herself, deserves better.

Have you ever seen a terrific trailer, only to find yourself grossly disappointed in the actual movie? That’s how I feel about The Iron Lady. Indeed, those previews seem almost like a calculated bait-and-switch on the part of the producers. In two different theatrical previews (plus a six-minute featurette), Streep fills the screen with an uncanny embodiment of England’s political grande dame Maggie Thatcher in her prime. In the movie itself, Streep is no less center-screen. But through most of the 105-minute running time she is playing the contemporary Mrs. Thatcher—a sad, elderly shell, cognitively impaired and shuffling through her townhouse in a nightgown. (But I challenge any actress to shuffle as convincingly as the divine Ms. Streep.)

 

Thatcher (Streep) as a young Member of Parliament.

When we first meet Thatcher, she is buying a pint of milk at a corner convenience store. She returns home and proceeds to banter over breakfast with her husband, Denis (played with delightful affection and mischief by Jim Broadbent). We suddenly realize, however, that Denis has been dead for several years and her overprotective staff is keeping Maggie under a surveillance of sorts.  It’s an interesting beginning, and soon we are in expected biopic territory as the film flashes back to the young Margaret, an idealistic “grocer’s daughter,” inspired by her father’s local politicking and headed to Oxford. From this point I expected to follow Thatcher’s career chronologically. Unfortunately, the filmmakers had something else in mind.

The scenes of Margaret as a young wife, mother, and aspiring Member of Parliament are engaging, but too short. Every few minutes we are brought back into modern times, and the scenes of the older Thatcher are too long and, quite frankly, too depressing. It seems distastefully voyeuristic to watch her struggle to turn on the television, lose track of what year it is, argue with her doctor, and willingly hallucinate to avoid her loneliness. 

 

When the flashbacks reach the point where Maggie is middle-aged and we finally see the Streep we expected, it is a welcome relief. But these scenes, too, are truncated. We certainly see her conviction and power, but without the depth that might help us understand her character.

In fact, Thatcher’s major decisions and accomplishments are presented as quick bites: quotes that now, out of context, seem like clichés, in montage with news footage. It’s a cinematic jukebox: Margaret Thatcher’s Greatest Hits. We get the Falklands war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, NRA terrorism, union strikes. Each event affords us another opportunity to watch and hear Thatcher defend her all-or-nothing approach, but there’s no real insight.

With the imbalanced focus on Thatcher’s current (and, we have to assume, fictionalized) story, I wondered if The Iron Lady was trying to transcend its subject matter and make some kind of profound philosophical statement about aging and the human condition. The problem, though, is that Thatcher’s story during her eleven years in office is far more interesting. Or would have been, if it had been given the attention it deserved.

And the movie missed an opportunity to present a layered look at how an individual woman was able to seize and maintain power in a man’s world. Instead we are served up a string of superficial scenes: mother Maggie neglecting her young children in order to serve her country; Prime Minister Thatcher correcting a sexist remark from Alexander Haig and then offering to pour his tea. As she is groomed to become a viable candidate, she has to adopt a serious hairdo (and I have to say that the movie nails Maggie’s infamous helmet head), and learn to speak in a more authoritative (less female) tone. The makeover scenes are a bit too obvious, and they take Thatcher’s against-all-odds rise and diminish it to the level of an adorable Pygmalion myth. There is an incredible feminist story to be told about Margaret Thatcher, but you won’t find it here. And that’s a shame.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Maryl February 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

    I’ve yet to see “The Iron Lady” and will despite the film’s shortcomings. I opted instead to see “Albert Nobbs” this week and was in awe of the story and acting, especially of course Glenn Close. As much as I love Meryl, I’d say she’s got some competition come Oscar time.

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