I’m not gonna lie, folks: I really didn’t want to see this movie. By all appearances, this looked like the Weinstein brothers were ripping off their own Best Picture winner from last year, constructing a film specifically so that Meryl Streep could get an Oscar. Yes, another Oscar to go with the two she already has, presumably kept right next to her seven Golden Globes.
Over the course of Streep’s career, she’s earned more Academy Award nominations, Golden Globe nominations, and Golden Globe wins than any actor in history. She holds two honorary doctorates (Princeton and Harvard), two Emmys, a BAFTA award, a lifetime achievement award from the AFI, and she just got a Kennedy Center Honor a few months ago. And that’s just skimming the surface.
I don’t mean to imply that Streep isn’t a great actress or that she doesn’t deserve all those accolades. Quite the contrary. No, I’m left wondering why Streep is making such a transparent awards ploy when she already has so many laurels to rest on. This career move would reek of desperation for any other actress, but it’s just puzzling for Streep. Is that third Academy Award really going to boost her career in any way? Is an eighth Golden Globe going to tell us anything that we don’t already know? Sorry, but I just can’t get behind Streep’s latest award campaign in a year filled with so many outstanding performances delivered by talented actresses who are eager and ready to break out. For example, Carey Mulligan has long since proven herself an Oscar-worthy actress, and she was phenomenal in both Drive and Shame. But I digress.
Anyway, The Iron Lady has finally come to Portland just as the typical January/February cinematic doldrums are getting underway. Pickings are slim and awards anticipation is high, so here I am to weigh in on the Margaret Thatcher biopic.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I knew virtually nothing about Margaret Thatcher going in. Her term as Britain’s PM was well before my time, and history was never my greatest subject. I knew that she was Britain’s first (and so far, only) prime minister, and I knew that she was (and so far, is) a highly controversial figure, but I couldn’t tell you exactly why she was so inflammatory. This is probably a huge part of why I disliked the movie so much.
A significant portion of the movie focuses on Thatcher (played by Streep, of course) in the present day, when she’s powerless, obsolete, and grappling with hallucinations of her dead husband (Denis, played by Jim Broadbent). This is used as a framing device to portray Thatcher’s life — literally her entire life, all 80-some years of it — as crammed into 100 minutes’ running time.
I could clearly see a good film in here somewhere. In fact, I could see four or five good films in here. A formerly great woman making peace with her obsolescence and grievances could have made a great film. A movie about Thatcher’s rise to power could have been a great film. A movie about the UK union strikes in the ’80s could have been great. A movie about the IRA activity of the time could have been great. The Falklands War, the Cold War, and even Thatcher’s fall from power could all have made great movies with Thatcher as the protagonist.
Unfortunately, when all of these stories are crammed into so little running time, the whole movie ends up suffering for it. For one thing, this means that nearly all of the characters in this film — aside from Thatcher and her husband — are reduced to cardboard cutouts who just drift in and out of the film. There were a ton of solid and accomplished actors in this film (Anthony Head and Roger Allam, just to name a couple), yet I couldn’t for the life of me tell one of them from another. I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know their jobs, and I didn’t know their agendas. I didn’t know a single damned thing about anyone in this film aside from our two leads. And they were all so whiny, annoying, chauvinist, and two-dimensionally stupid that I didn’t particularly care to.
This brings me to another huge problem with the movie: The issues raised are all way oversimplified. Unions go on strike, Argentinians invade a remote UK territory, and there’s rioting in the streets of Britain, yet this movie can’t spare any time to go into the whys and wherefores. The filmmakers could have chosen any one event in this film to depict the matter in detail, describing how the crisis came to be and what steps were taken to fix it so that we may see the modern-day parallels for ourselves. Instead, the movie has to resort to modern-day talking points, effectively screaming “THIS IS RELEVANT!” in the most obnoxious and pretentious way possible.
Remember, the movie is about one of modern history’s most notoriously controversial leaders, and the narrative depicts such complex matters as war and economic hardship. It would have been fascinating to see this subject matter treated with some nuance. The movie could have shown Thatcher’s logic in acting the way she did while also explaining why so many others were (and still are) so strongly against her decisions. Instead, these tremendously difficult matters are stripped down to so many boilerplate talking points and so much conservative propaganda. Margaret Thatcher is always right, all of the cartoonishly incompetent and spineless people around her are always wrong, and that’s all there is to it. Ugh.
Though to be fair, this may be where my youth is working against me. I am, after all, a twenty-something American male who’s developed a gag reflex toward empty partisan rhetoric such as what’s been shoved down my ear canal during every day of my formative years. Additionally, it’s probable that those old enough to remember all the issues and rationales involved will get much more entertainment out of the movie.
On the other hand, this is an Oscar-bait film. A transparent and shameless Oscar-bait film at that. This is a film that’s trying to pass itself off as the best movie of the year. A film that was constructed for the sole purpose of endearing itself not just to Academy voters, but to moviegoers who will think that if it wins awards then that somehow makes the Oscars more relevant and higher on the Nielsen charts. If a film can somehow be so pandering and so inaccessible at the same time, then I think that’s the film’s problem and not mine.
Say what you will about The King’s Speech, but at least it focused on a single slice of the subject’s life. As such, it could take the time to flesh out the period setting, establishing the stakes and developing its characters in the process. Yes, A Beautiful Mind depicted several decades of John Nash’s life, but the entire movie revolved around the onset of schizophrenia. This singular (and perhaps more importantly, relatable) focus anchored the movie’s events and powered the development of its characters. By contrast, The Iron Lady is all over the place. It spans several decades and tries to tackle a multitude of issues, ultimately taking on so many goals that it can’t hope to meet a single one of them.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is blunt as a bulldozer. The visuals are entirely unremarkable, save only for those many times when the camera shows Thatcher’s blue wardrobe against the greys and browns of her male colleagues (GET IT?!). The screenplay includes some very elegant motifs — the pearl necklace and “The King and I” were probably my favorites — but something like 80 percent of the dialogue is made of lengthy political monologues filled with so much rhetoric that I was instantly bored to tears.
That said, the mark of truly great actors is in how they handle dialogue. Anyone can make good dialogue pop off the page, but only an extraordinary actor can salvage bad dialogue. And once again, Streep proves that she’s one of the best actors alive. She imbues the character with a huge amount of inner strength and confidence in every scene. Streep does a particularly phenomenal job at playing a vivacious old woman, though the stellar makeup certainly helps. A ton of her dialogue is comprised of cliches and talking points, yet Streep is charismatic enough to make the speeches work.
Finally, kudos are also due to Jim Broadbent. He makes Denis so incredibly charming that it’s easy to see why Thatcher stayed in love with him through the decades.
All said, The Iron Lady is a film unworthy of its cast. The actors are all outstanding, but Streep and Broadbent are the only ones with a decent amount of screen time and characters who are worth a damn. Still, what really makes this movie suffer is that it tries to cram eight decades of story into 100 minutes of screen time. This leads to pretentious cliches being passed as thematic depth while crucial historical events are depicted only in the most shallow terms. Basically, this movie is just barely good enough to show glimpses of all the potential being wasted.
If you’re already familiar with the history and/or if you’re a fan of Streep, then I’m sure you’ll have a good time with this one. All others should feel free to skip it.