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Home » Culture and Criticism

29/31: The tin ear of The Iron Lady

Submitted by on December 29, 2011 – 4:05 PM8 Comments

"One must be brave if one is to take the wheel." — Margaret Thatcher, teaching her daughter to drive, and the rest of us how not to write

Imagine the movies that the life of Margaret Thatcher might, must, contain. The period piece that examines Britain's political theater in the late 1950s. The quiet listening at the breakfast tables of a marriage. The war-room thriller. The many reckonings of a woman in power.

Having imagined the potential of these grand true stories, know then that Meryl Streep is confined to the substandard The Iron Lady, a self-satisfied checklist of Thatcher's career peaks and valleys clumsily woven into a present-day subplot about Thatcher's dementia. She still sees her dead husband, you see — still speaks to him as though he's still there, begs him by turns to leave her alone and to stay at her side. This is, for one thing, not necessarily a symptom of dementia but a fairly standard coping mechanism of grieving. For another thing, a script that evidently expects us to side with Thatcher as a feminist crusader — despite the character as written not seeming to have much use for that idea — should probably reconsider a framing device that faux-humanizes a powerful woman and her controversial policies with the love of a good man. (Whose own career, apparently, consisted in its entirety of 1) admiring Thatcher and 2) almost losing his shoes in a bombing. I know nothing about Denis Thatcher's life and perhaps this reflects his reality, but if his love is intended as redemptive, giving him a fraction of dimension on the page is indicated. Jim Broadbent nearly herniates himself with the effort at unexamined hale fondness.)

Streep is fantastic and capable; you know it's her, but it's her, so you don't mind. Cast in a half-decent film about Thatcher that didn't simultaneously sniff at and hammer on her non-titled striving, she could have delivered an all-time moving performance, and she has a few elegant moments here underneath the makeup and prosthetic teeth, exploring the compromises and emotional minefields the writing refuses to. She'll likely get an Oscar nod, and she'll deserve it, but it isn't enough — it serves only to remind you of those other movies, sadly unrealized. Thatcher's doddering frumpage is positioned as pitiable, then unsuccessfully leveraged for cheap sentiment. The archival footage (always of the back of the real Thatcher's head), Richard E. Grant and Anthony "Giles" Head looking ashamed of themselves in fish-eye shots as guitars buzz with discordant pointedness on the soundtrack, the diorama-esque speechifying at dinner tables and in meeting rooms, the unforgivable and oft-repeated focus pulls to Thatcher's engagement setting, the pen underlining key parts of a position paper, this happened, that happened, she suffered politically and emotionally, all add up to one conclusion: you, slower-than-average six-year-old viewer, would do better to find a documentary about Thatcher on BBC On-Demand — or that notorious Genesis video — than waste nearly two hours of your life on this Model UN fail.

There is one interesting shot towards the end of the film. The camera angle overcloses the argument, natch, but Thatcher is kitted out in a button-bodiced gown with a ruffle at the neck, and made up as pale as a doily. Attended by various parliamentarians and assistants as she proceeds down a hallway, she brings to mind Elizabeth I. It's one of the few vignettes that isn't patronizing, simplistic, manipulative, tricksy, tin-eared, or bathetic; the effect must therefore be completely accidental.

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  • Angie says:

    It sounds like I'd be just as well re-watching Julie and Julia. Streep's lovely in it, and Stanley Tucci is so great as Paul Child it breaks me in half.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    That…a test pattern…

  • Michelle Z says:

    I felt similarly about J. Edgar. There is a really interesting story in J. Edgar Hoover's rise to power and/or personal life, but this movie isn't it. Leonardo DiCaprio was really good, though…

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Couch Baron suggested yesterday that The Iron Lady should elope with J. Edgar and have The Descendants…far away from us.

  • ADS says:

    "Couch Baron suggested yesterday that The Iron Lady should elope with J. Edgar and have The Descendants…far away from us."

    Okay, I just spit water all over my keyboard. Happy New Year, everyone!

  • […] does a nice review of it, if you're […]

  • Todd K says:

    Re: Your last paragraph. I had forgotten that this was directed by Phyllida Lloyd. That makes sense. Years ago I saw a staged Macbeth of hers that was full of kitschy, obvious claptrap that undermined the material, but there were moments suggesting what could have been if she had better edited herself. I remember an eerie fluidity to some scenic transitions; my note of the time compared it to a "coma dream." The scene you describe was probably less an accident than one of the rare occasions when she got of her own way. (However, I know she isn't to blame for The Iron Lady's screenplay.)

  • Kitty says:

    This is the movie that I'm looking forward to seeing THE LEAST in the "Oscar Death Race 2012". Each time I see the trailer I want to punch something/one.

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