Friday, January 13, 2012

Streep as Thatcher makes ‘Iron Lady’ essential viewing

By Steve Crum

Had The Iron Lady been made with an actress less capable than Meryl Streep, it would have been a mediocre, passable movie. But Streep headlines, which makes this biography of Britain’s legendary prime minister a must see. The screenplay itself is problematic, but Streep dazzles.

Past holiday seasons have given us The Queen and The King’s Speech, two exceptional films featuring charismatic lead actors and compelling stories. In fact, The Queen’s backstage at the Royal Palace approach was an immediate hook since there has been so little known about the queen’s daily life over the past 50 years. Same goes for King George in The King’s Speech.

Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain’s prime minster from 1979-90, is another story--a less interesting story. Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mama Mia!) and screenwriter Abi Morgan are not entirely to blame for this failure. That is because Thatcher’s life lacks verve. If only her husband, the humorous and eccentric Denis (Jim Broadbent), were the sole focus of The Iron Lady. That would have been a far more interesting story. What a whimsical soul he evidently was, according to his depiction here. When Denis does (frequently) appear, the film bursts alive and fresh.

A base problem is the very nature of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party-based, political career. Add to that her persona, including a droll, tempered speaking manner. One plus one equals conservatism at its most orthodox.

Specifically, the plot is told in flashbacks from the vantage point of 24 hours in the present day life of long retired Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It is obvious she suffers from dementia, but this is implicit via actions, and never actually said. (Baroness Thatcher, in fact, is still living at 86, and reportedly has dementia issues.)

Canvased in is Thatcher’s working class childhood, followed by challenges early on as a female breaking into male dominated politics of The Tory Party. (Alexandra Roach is fine as the young Maggie.) Echoing last year’s The King’s Speech, Thatcher is coached in proper speech techniques, particularly enunciation.

More flashbacks recall her rise to the House of Commons as a Conservative, and her destiny as Great Britain’s first female prime minister. The story segues back to present and so on, with Jim Broadbent’s terrific portrayal of Denis shown in real time (the past) and as a wise cracking ghost (present) that only Margaret can see and hear through her skewed sense of reality.

During her tenure of office, Thatcher initiated The Falklands War, and dealt with the sinking of the Belgrano. She was also burdened with her country’s economic and unemployment issues. These events are included in The Iron Lady, but not elaborated upon. In other words, there are no Falklands battle scenes, which is wise since that would detract from the gist of the story. Then again, this script could have used the adrenaline.

Yet we have Streep. More than just the greatest character actress of our time, she is the greatest, living film actress, period. Her Margaret Thatcher is no caricature, she becomes Thatcher.

It is a jolting, Oscar caliber portrayal amidst a mostly prosaic film, Jim Broadbent’s sequences being another exception.
GRADE on a Scale of A to F: B-
You'll get a hint of the greatness of The Iron Lady:

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