Wednesday, July 4, 2012

120. THE IRON LADY (2011)

This film about Margaret Roberts Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister in British history and a record holder of that office (1979-90), is at least as much about a Meryl Streep performance. It is constructed so that it is less impressive as the comprehensive story of a still-living historical figure who served in recent memory than as a sustained impression assisted by seamless makeup appliances.

The DVD notes describe the film as the story of "the most powerful woman of her time," a woman whose working class background and inner strength "propelled her to unprecedented power in a world dominated by men," but it's moreso the story of that strength's faltering, as the retired PM succumbs to senility, conducting conversations with her late husband Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent) and generally coming "unstuck in time" (to quote Vonnegut), returning to her humble origins as well as the early days of her marriage and career, during which Streep is replaced by well-cast and just-as-capable Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd as Denis. (Mind you, all this can easily be swallowed as fact, but the only official word on Thatcher's health is that she suffered a series of small strokes in 2002 and called a cessation to her public speaking thereafter. The rest, so far as public record is aware, is a storytelling device and quite a presumptuous one.) Thatcher was a controversial, polarizing figure, adored by the wealthy and demonized by the poor (including some 3,000,000 unemployed members of the citizenry during her Conservative reign) but director Phyllida Lloyd (MAMMA MIA!) and screenwriter Abi Morgan tapdance around most of this to give us a homogenized version, only vaguely delineated in political terms. We see her and her hairstyle taking a staunch hardline stance in front of a fictitiously all-male, half-fawning Parliament; her causes are shown to always end well, with just enough intermediary unpleasantness to keep the drama kettle bubbling.

Ineptly, the film incorporates 4.3 television coverage of highlights like the UK garbage strike and the Falkland Islands war into the 2.35:1 feature by stretching it horizontally, when matting it properly would have been much less distracting. All in all, one can't call the film at all educational or balanced and, as cinema, it's not notably more than a play. Yes, you do get a remarkable, nuanced, sensitive performance by Streep, but it's the cart leading the horse, and you don't reap noticeably less by imagining it in an instant than you'll get in the couple of hours it takes to watch it in real time. It won her virtually every major film award for Best Actress, but I believe there's an important difference worth pondering between a performance that carries a film and one that props it up.

Viewed on Weinstein Company Blu-ray, also available on DVD.

1 comment:

  1. The movie really does raise all sorts of questions about movies and acting. And casting, actually. Is there ever a time when an actor should deliver less than he's capable of? Should a movie with this strong a central focus be a movie at all? Maybe it should be on stage, a one woman show. Should a lesser actor be cast to begin with, so as not to overwhelm the film?

    Sure, questions. But that's as far as you can go with THE IRON LADY. The screenplay itself is so scattered, and so much less intelligent than the characters it presents, that it makes too much analysis seem like a waste of time. A shame, really, that the movie both offers and wastes such a towering, incredible performance.