Thanks to his dedication to the art of indolence, Appellate Judge Tom Becker is known as the Iron Lay-about.
With her first two Oscars, Meryl Streep won in a walk. At the end of the 1970s, she was already recognized as one of film's most exciting new talents, and her win as Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer—after sweeping the critics' awards—was a foregone conclusion going into Oscar night. Three years later, she gave what is considered one of the all-time great performances in Sophie's Choice.
Streep, of course, went on giving great performances, racking up (so far) an astonishing 17 Oscar nominations as well as wins and nominations from virtually every critics group, as well as the Screen Actors Guild (Doubt) and the Cannes Film Festival (A Cry in the Dark).
Streep won her third Oscar in February 2012 for The Iron Lady, but this win was hardly the cakewalk that the others had been; in fact, Streep's victory was something of a surprise, with the odds on Viola Davis winning for The Help.
Was Oscar number three merely an overdue prize for years of great performances, or did Streep really knock it out of the park as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady?
Facts of the Case
Former British Prime Minister (1979-1990) and leader of the Conservative Party Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is now an old woman being slowly hobbled by dementia. She's confused; she spends much of her time conversing with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent, Iris), who died some years ago. Despite the best efforts of her staff, she occasionally leaves her home by herself.
While dementia is clearly winning the battle, Thatcher's not going down without a fight. She is still a commanding presence, even if her presence doesn't command the kind of attention it once did.
As Mrs. Thatcher slowly begins attending to the task of boxing up her late husband's personal items, she looks back on her life, not only her time as one of the most powerful women in the world, but her time with her family and Denis, as well.
As a study of Margaret Thatcher's life and career, The Iron Lady is less enlightening than what you might find on a Famous Person Birthday Tribute calendar. The film seems to operate on the premise that either you're familiar enough with the Thatcher story that you can fill in the blanks yourself, or you know so little about her that it won't matter. This has got to be one of the most scattershot biographical portraits I've ever seen.
While the Thatcher legacy is still hotly debated, it wasn't incumbent on the filmmakers to make a film depicting her as a modern-day monster, as some have suggested. But to completely ignore that debate and relegate most of the significant moments of her career to snippets and sound bites makes the film a little disingenuous; why make a film about an important and controversial global figure and skate over precisely why that person was important and controversial? Thatcher was the first, and so far only, female British PM, and she held the office longer than anyone in the 20th Century; that she was a woman in a man's world is the focus, making this more like a "woman's film" from another era. The "Thatcher Years" saw tremendous changes in Britain and plenty of unrest, but little of that is addressed in a meaningful way.
The filmmakers seem to be offering up a respectful look at the private life of a public person, which is fine, but The Iron Lady gives us a portrait with little depth and insight. Thatcher reviews her life but doesn't assess it, notes how the world has changed, but doesn't really contextualize it. The scenes of the elderly Thatcher take up about half the running time, and I have to question how "respectful" it is to spend so much of the film showing this one-time formidable world leader as a doddering old woman.
The film pings around from old Margaret, who spends a great deal of time talking to the ghost of Denis, to middle-aged Margaret and to very young Margaret, the last portrayed by British actress Alexandra Roach. All due respect to the talented Ms. Roach, but the young Margaret scenes do little to enhance the story or give us any deeper understanding of the character. Everything they tell us could have been covered in a few lines of dialogue.
The story of the middle-aged Thatcher (Streep), which should be the meat of the film, basically unfolds as a highlights reel, with more attention given her rise to PM than her actual tenure in the position. The Falklands War is given around five minutes; Ronald Reagan makes a 10-second appearance, dancing with Thatcher at some official function, their deep relationship otherwise all but ignored; her role in the unification of Germany is mentioned in a newscast voice over; the Queen is barely noted; Thatcher's fall from power is rushed through, with events mentioned but never given context. On the other hand, a fair amount of time is spent on advisors helping Thatcher develop her trademark look and voice.
Any of these incidents—and dozens of others—could have been fleshed out and made the basis of an entire film. That was the strategy that made The King's Speech and The Queen successful. It just isn't feasible to make a film of the one of the most polarizing political figures of the 20th Century and cover her entire life in and hour and three-quarter.
Instead, director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) and writer Abi Morgan (Shame) seem hell-bent on giving us an anti-biopic, a film about a noted person in which incident takes a backseat to characterization. That could work—an "intimate" portrait of an historical figure—but not with Thatcher, who's still alive and whose influence is still reverberating; not when we know there's a more interesting story to be told than the one we're seeing; and not when we know that the "intimate story" isn't "intimate" at all, but something that Morgan made up out of her head. She doesn't know what the 86-year-old Thatcher is thinking any more than the rest of us do. In Thatcher's dementia, she might be in a Tiki bar doing tequila shots with Reagan and Gorbachev and having a grand time.
Now, that's a movie I'd like to see.
Anchor Bay's disc of The Iron Lady (Blu-ray) comes with a great-looking transfer that well serves the film's subdued palette without making it look dull. Audio is clean and clear; in general, the film is what you'd expect a Blu-ray of a new film to be.
For supplements, there's a "making of" featurette that runs about 12 minutes and four shorter promotional featurettes. None of these is especially compelling or special. There's also a DVD and a Digital Copy, making this one of those technical three-disc sets.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is one reason, and one reason only, to see The Iron Lady, but it's a mighty compelling one: Meryl Streep gives an absolutely astonishing performance. She really outdoes herself. If she weren't already Meryl Streep, this performance would have made her Meryl Streep; it's right up there with her work in Sophie's Choice.
Streep doesn't play the script; she overcomes it, taking a character written as a stick figure and creating a multi-dimensional human being. The Thatcher of Morgan and Lloyd might be crib notes, but Streep's Thatcher is a deeply felt study, exquisitely and lovingly wrought.
Much as I dislike the structure of the film and find the depiction of the aged, infirm Thatcher to be both ghoulish and presumptuous, at least there's a payoff: the chance to see Streep inhabit this now-frail and weakened "iron" lady. While Thatcher critics are likely to find her sympathetic portrayal infuriating, there's no denying its power. She is absolutely riveting in the first scene, which is also one of the best—the elderly Thatcher, having escaped her caregivers' watchful eyes, buys milk in a convenience store, unrecognized, seeming confused at how the world has changed, out of touch with these every-day people. The world has changed; Margaret Thatcher hasn't.
Streep is also excellent at the younger, vital Thatcher, and—thanks in no small part to the Oscar-winning make-up effects—is even able to take the rather hackneyed business of the creation of the Thatcher look and turn it into something breathtaking. She fully earned all the awards and accolades, offering a rich performance in a film that's otherwise disappointingly short of richness.
If you forget that this is a biographical film, you'll probably enjoy The Iron Lady more. It's not an uninteresting film, and it resonates the way another film about a woman dealing with dementia, Away From Her, resonates.
The shallow script makes it tough to give this one a solid recommendation, but the striking central performance makes it impossible not to.
The Iron Lady is Meryl Steep's show from top to bottom. It's a stunning, heartbreaking performance in a film that's otherwise a bit emptier than it should be.
In the end, "great" triumphs over "mediocre."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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