Sunday, February 5, 2012

Streep is great, as always, but "The Iron Lady" is not

The Iron Lady (2011)
105 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C
The chief selling point of "The Iron Lady" is watching the most beloved acting chameleon of our time, Meryl Streep, portray one of the most polarizing politicians of the twentieth century, Margaret Thatcher. You never feel the sausage being made; Ms. Streep uncannily transforms herself into Thatcher without feeling like it's just Meryl Streep acting. With false teeth, pearls, make-up, and adopting a trilling cadence, she not only looks and sounds like her, but gets under the skin of Thatcher. Is there anything Streep cannot do? Heck, she could have sold her own portrayal as J. Edgar Hoover even. With all that praise, she is the sole draw to this biopic, which is otherwise too cursory to be insightful or terribly compelling.

When we first meet Margaret Thatcher, she's a dotty octogenarian. Almost invisibly in the market buying a pint of milk, she is taken aback by the price of milk these days. At the breakfast table, she carries on conversations with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), who no longer exists, except in her mind. As she toddles around her home in Britain, she also struggles with the early stages of dementia and her delusions of holding onto the power she once had. In flashbacks, Maggie was a grocer's daughter, an Oxford graduate, and then a young wife, working her way up to the boy's club of politics. Then, of course, she went on to become a Member of Parliament and ultimately Britain's first conservative, female Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. Men underestimated her and complained that she screeched when she spoke and she received public backlash over her economic policies, but Lady Thatcher was driven, set in her ways, and never softened her image. Ambivalent to her rise and refusal to be a housewife, Denis sacrified his personal goals and stood by her, until (and after) his death.

Director Phyllida Lloyd (who first steered Streep in 2008's "Mamma Mia!") does show a sturdier hand for her second feature. She uses some very dramatic lighting that serves purpose to Thatcher's bookending scenes. And the old-age make-up is quite convincing on Streep, compared to the hack job on Armie Hammer in Clint Eastwood recent biopic, "J. Edgar."

Employing another unreliable, personal approach for a biopic, "The Iron Lady" is a mere skeleton of a film, with Streep as the beating heart. Abi Morgan's ("Shame") nonjudgmental, nonpartisan script is more of an outline, storytelling being substituted for hallucinations, bullet point events, montages, news-reel footage, and flashbacks. Meandering almost randomly between timelines, the Falkland Islands conflict and IRA bombings are here, but everything else is given such a shorthand. Thatcher's political controversy is simplified to canted-angle shots of angry citizens banging on her car windows and rioting, cued to head-banging music on the soundtrack. These snapshots search for a whole and depth, but it all becomes stultifyingly stuffy without any momentum. 

The old-age framework doesn't even feel of much use to humanize Thatcher or allow us to gain more of an understanding of her with dementia. So what, she's a doddering, crazy old lady that lost her power but never her stubbornness? The real Thatcher, now 86 years old and reportedly suffering from Alzheimer's, might even find it to be a cheap shot. If the film intended to take a subjective, well-balanced stance on this powerfully ambitious woman to disprove her being known as a she-devil, then why not shed light on what specifically drove her? How her family relationships suffered as a result of her aspirations is briefly hinted at (her estranged, South Africa-residing son Mark has little contact with Mom), but never explored. 

Streep never sentimentalizes Thatcher and does attempt to find a human soul when the script stumbles; she also nails the prickly side, and her staunch conservatism and feminism. Next to her powerhouse central performance, the rest of the cast also offers solid support. Jim Broadbent is dotty, open-hearted, and endearingly matched up as her business-man husband, Denis. Also capturing the distinctive look and vocals of Streep's older Thatcher, Alexandra Roach does fine work as the younger Margaret. Finally, Olivia Colman adds compassion and humor as Margaret's daughter, Carol, who definitely got her mother's looks.

For Streep completists only, "The Iron Lady" is watchable if only to showcase the actress's unlimited talents. But as a motion picture about a polemical, imperious figure in history, it's a shallow vessel that's satisfied in just skimming the surface. We want to see the former PR's moments of greatness and controversies, not an old-lady version of her looking back at her life, washing teacups, and telling her dead husband not to put so much butter on his toast.

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