The Iron Lady strands Meryl Streep's uncanny Margaret Thatcher in a splintered biopic 

Stand Down Margaret

Stand Down Margaret

Essentially a one-woman stage play dressed as a biopic, The Iron Lady, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is an unfocused, unnecessarily splintered portrait of a figure whose import it takes for granted. In these surroundings, Meryl Streep's impeccable turn as the United Kingdom's first and only female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, is an award-worthy performance in search of a vehicle.

The filmmakers divide The Iron Lady into the story of two women: the "grocer's daughter from Grantham" who refused to be ignored by the male-dominated political class, and the aging baroness tragically losing her grip on her mind and her former self. With the exception of brief contributions from Alexandra Roach as a young Margaret, Streep plays both these two Thatchers as the movie depicts her rise to power and subsequent time as prime minister by way of a series of flashbacks, supposedly brought on by her increasingly unhinged mind. Her dementia also triggers visions of her dead husband (played by Jim Broadbent), interactions she desperately fights off with diminishing success.

The flashback structure has some merit as a strategy for portraying one of the most divisive political figures of the century. Like her ally and fellow conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who underwent a similarly painful fade in his twilight, Thatcher was a hero to the right and a figure of near-demonic loathing to the left; whether you see her as Henry V or Lady Macbeth, there is inescapable poignance in watching someone who scaled such heights brought low by ordinary physical frailty. But in Morgan and Lloyd's telling, the narrative settles into a tiresome back-and-forth lockstep that avoids any serious assessment of Thatcher's true legacy.

Granted, the filmmakers provide a whistlestop tour along the route of Thatcher's Wikipedia entry, with special treatment given to Thatcher's handling of the Falkland Islands invasion — a move The Iron Lady portrays as a vindicated boost to British nationalism on a par with the U.S.'s retaliation for Pearl Harbor. But the movie seems determined to chart a noncontroversial course through one of the most controversial political careers of recent times, serving up a clip reel of hastily presented touchstones interspersed with glum portrayals of the present day. Her ascent to power, her tenure in office and her eventual ouster are mostly reduced to highlight packages. Often it's as if we're watching the trailer for the Margaret Thatcher movie that could have been.

All that keeps the fractured narrative from dissipating completely is the gravity of Streep's performance. No matter how sporadic Thatcher's memories may be, she is the star in every one, which thankfully keeps Streep at the movie's center. Yet in this form, the drama might have been better presented, and better received, in a playhouse with a marquee presenting "Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher." There, the sets and clamoring Brits could revolve around Streep as they do in the film, but the viewer wouldn't expect anything more than a marvelous stand-alone impression. As it is, the production is found lacking in spite of her performance, rather than celebrated because of it.

In the end, The Iron Lady leaves Margaret Thatcher in the present — the film's version of it, anyway — as a hobbling widow, confined to her home and the chores she swore off as a young woman. The audience is left to wonder which would bother her more: the fact that for the woman who changed British politics, washing a teacup is now an act of independence — or our pity as the credits roll.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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