I can’t imagine painting a cinematic portrait of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a controversial and important figure in history, would be easy. However, I’m almost certain that a fairer and more complete one that the one “The Iron Lady” presents can be forged. It’s less a portrait than a profile, meant only to show her dark side and highlight her demons rather than her successes.
While I’m definitely open to people finding innovative new ways to approach the tired and typical de rigueur biopic, screenwriter Abi Morgan’s solution doesn’t give us an overview of Thatcher so much as it gives us her opinion of Thatcher. By anchoring the movie in her declining years as she suffers from Alzheimer’s and the resultant hallucinations of her deceased husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent), “The Iron Lady” starts with the proposition that Margaret Thatcher is crazy. Director Phyllida Lloyd then complements this by giving these scenes the ambience of paranoid thriller as she slips in and out of reality, all the while wondering if her caretakers will take her away from home.
Then, once her spacey unreliability has been established, they begin the voyage into her storied past from her days as Margaret Roberts, the grocer’s daughter, to her rise in the Conservative Party all the way to the top position as Margaret Thatcher. The structure barely works as it stands because it shifts so abruptly, giving the movie the same uneven and rough feel that Lloyd bequeathed to her film adaptation of “Mamma Mia.” But the worst part is that, whether it came from Morgan’s script or Lloyd’s direction, the voices don’t go away and Thatcher is made out to be crazy even when she was totally in her right mind.
Apparently, just being conservative classifies you as a looney in this movie’s universe. Thatcher’s accomplishments as a woman and a leader are substantial, but you would never know she was the British counterpart to Ronald Reagan because the movie is so busy framing her as crazy and a failed wife and mother. Her successes are really only highlighted in a montage, yet her failures and shortcomings are explored in much more detail. Granted it probably happens all the time in politics nowadays, but what does it say about Thatcher’s success if to become Prime Minister, she needs to totally change her image? How is it a victory for women if Thatcher wins by making herself more appealing and less true?
The only victory of the movie, it would appear, is Meryl Streep in yet another incredible performance. It’s unfair to judge her by her own standards – which are to the sky – but it certainly falls short of the power of Sister Aloysius in “Doubt” or the effortless inhabitation of Julia Child in “Julie & Julia.” Nevertheless, it is still unbelievable how she slides into Thatcher’s persona, both as her resolved younger self and her fragile older self (with the help of some very skilled make-up artists). She nails Thatcher’s strength and accent, making her hobbling frailty all the more frightening.
Yet undermining her constantly are the direction, which feels halfheartedly committed to its own calculations, and the script, at odds with Streep’s fair and careful portrayal. For instance, Morgan seems to insinuate that since Thatcher was honest and frank with her colleagues, she deserves to be classified as the dreaded B-word. But Streep doesn’t think so; she just sees Thatcher as someone deeply convicted in the need for efficacy and candor. However, Streep has to read Morgan’s words, resulting in a muddled mess of a character. The Iron Lady herself deserves better, and hopefully someone will revisit her story and give her a chance. C- /