The Iron Lady (2011)
I suppose it can be said that any politician who has ever held office can be considered divisive. No matter how likable they are, there will always be a camp that loves them and a camp that hates them. One of the most divisive and controversial politicians of all time is Margaret Thatcher, England's first (and to this date, only) female Prime minister. Making a movie about her would be tricky because the real Margaret Thatcher is still very much alive. However, they pulled the film off really well, and although the film has its problems, I genuinely don't understand why it only has a 55% score on this very website. I personally thought it was very good, and although it was hampered by an uneven narrative (which wasn't even due to the flashback structure), the film is chock-full of fine performances and generally one that is worth watching, especially before Oscar time.
The Iron Lady explores three periods of Margaret Thatcher's life, all told intertwiningly, which may throw some people off with the rather unsubtle transitions. However, if one pays attention, it gets easier to follow. The framing device is the time period when Thatcher is no longer prime minister and is instead a senile old lady (which is fact, as Thatcher currently suffers from either Alzheimers or dementia) being cared for by her daughter Carol (Olivia Coleman) and a team of helpers. It is during these moments where we see just how far gone Thatcher has become, as she is hallucinating images of her dead husband (Jim Broadbent) and is reluctant to get rid of his things, despite Carol's urgings.
|Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. It is here I pride the makeup because they really did make Streep look like Thatcher.|
Over the course of the film, we explore Thatcher's memories and the rise and eventual fall of her political career. We see bits of Margaret's teenage life (where she is played by Alexandra Roach), growing up as a grocer's daughter, listening to her father's political speeches and trying to make her way into parliament, which is frought with difficulty even when she does get elected into parliament, what with her being a "lady member" of an otherwise male parliament. This is also how she meets her husband (played by Harry Lloyd and later Jim Broadbent). Various flashbacks show Thatcher during her political career, including her stint in parliament, her run for prime minister, and everything that happens while she is prime minister. Some examples of the things that happen are the Trade Union Strikes, some nasty stuff with the IRA (which is why it is likely best not to mention Thatcher's name around some Irish), and the invasion of the Falkland Islands, which seems to be one of the main plot devices of the film's last act.
The film plays like a checklist of important events in Thatcher's life and career, and it bounces back and forth to the framing device of her as a senile old lady. It is in this story structure that the movie finds its main flaws. The film is not sure what it wants to say about Thatcher herself, and for those who don't know much about the real Margaret Thatcher, this does the film a bit of a disservice. I would have liked to see the film explore one of the three factions of Thatcher's life presented in the film. Instead, the film kind of wanders around aimlessly, touching on several important events as opposed to giving a definitive picture of our leading character. A possible theory to this story structure is that we are looking into the mind and memories of Thatcher, and that mind and those memories are none too reliable. Either way, the story is what drags an otherwise excellent movie down, and it is what prevented the critical reception from being better and the film being eligible for more awards.
|Quintessential British character actor Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher, with Streep again as Margaret.|
However, for all narrative problems, the script is okay, getting in some moments of sly humour like all British political dramas seem to. In fact, there is a very King's Speech-esque moment in the film where Thatcher's campaign managers are trying to teach her how to speak because, quite frankly, her voice is too high and commands no authority. The three incarnations of Thatcher are decently developed, but none of them get enough time on screen to provide a definitive picture of Thatcher as a leader. The topic of a woman in a man's game has been done to death, but that element of the story is mercifully downplayed. What the story really gets right is the portrayal of the nature of Thatcher's dementia (or whatever mentally degenerative disease she has), which is brilliantly portrayed through both the script and Streep's performance (which I will talk about later). A particularly notable scene where the audience notices her mind starting to go is when she humiliates her deputy (played by Anthony Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Repo! The Genetic Opera fame) at a cabinet meeting and rants aggressively at her cabinet. Thatcher's hallucinations of her late husband are handled very well, which gives the ending a bit more power. I won't spoil anything, so let's move on. Overall, despite my complaints about the story, it was a lesser part of the film and there was more than enough good stuff to balance out the narrative issues.
The first good thing to come out of this movie was obviously Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher. Her performance is the most acclaimed part of the movie for good reason, even scoring Streep her seventeenth Oscar nomination. In fact, it might just get Streep her third Oscar. I'm not placing any bets on the Best Actress race simply because it's so close. It'll be either her of Viola, that's for sure. Streep is typically excellent in her role, mastering the two facets of adult Thatcher, as well as Thatcher's physical appearance and weird accent. Will it get her the Oscar? Who knows, but she definitely deserves all of the praise that she's been getting. She once again proves that she may be the greatest actress working today and this is another great performance to add to her resume. Plus, she may have a leg up on the Oscar because she's playing a real person, unlike Davis. Again, it's a very tight race.
|Harry Lloyd as young Denis Thatcher|
However, Streep wasn't the only one who gave a great performance. The supporting cast in this film is wonderful, although they all pale in comparison to Streep. The first is Jim Broadbent as the ghost of Denis Thatcher, and I thought that he gave the second best performance, worthy of award attention in its own right, and he could have easily gone in Von Sydow's place for an Oscar nom. Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd also give good performances as young Margaret and Denis Thatcher for what little they are in the movie. In fact, I would have liked the film to spend a little more time on them. In fact, I would have generally liked to see more of Thatcher's past. The rest of the supporting cast did okay as well, turning in average, relatively unremarkable performances. The last I would like to talk about is Olivia Coleman, who played Thatcher's daughter Carol. While her performance certainly wasn't great, she did capture the frustration of a daughter dealing with her senile mother very well. Needless to say, the most memorable performance to come out of this movie will be Streep's, especially if it wins the Oscar, but she is backed up by a solid supporting cast.
The film is solid on a visual level, providing some decent British scenery, nice shots of parliament, and splendid art direction. The costume design was also good. In fact, it was likely worthy of an Oscar nomination. Some of the clothing they put Streep in was simply amazing. My personal favourite is the blue silk dress that young Thatcher wears to the meeting where she meets young Denis. I also liked some of the hats that she wore, but moving on. The only other nomination that the film received besides for Streep's performance was for the makeup, and I can definitely say that the makeup deserved to be nominated, because it is nigh impossible for Meryl Streep to look old under her own power. I don't think it will win the award, but it was worthy of a nomination nonetheless.
|Alexandra Roach as young Margaret Thatcher|
In short, though The Iron Lady is extremely flawed, it is standardly entertaining historical drama fare and for those who enjoy that sort of thing, I would highly recommend this film. For those that don't, you probably won't like it much, but if you want to see it for Streep's performance to see if she could take home the Oscar, go right ahead, don't let me stop you. Though Streep is definitely the best thing in the film, there are several other great things about The Iron Lady, making it an overall solid film. The film merely suffers from doesn't-know-what-it-wants-to-say-itis, not providing a definitive picture of the person it is about and leaving the viewer a bit confused as to whether the filmmakers love her or hate her. It also suffers from an uneven narrative and things that could have been expanded upon to make the movie better. But that won't stop me from recommending the film because for all its flaws, I did really like it.