Sunday, January 22, 2012

Movie Review: How The Iron Lady Lost Her Backbone

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

To use a British term, Meryl Streep is absolutely splendid in The Iron Lady, the new film about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Her performance is so complete, so natural and so seamless that's it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
But Streep is trapped in a hodgepodge of a movie that leaps forward, lapses backward and jumps all over the place. There are at least four different movies in The Iron Lady.
One is the story of the young Margaret Roberts, the rather introspective, studious grocer's daughter who adored her father and struggled to gain her mother's approval. Awkward and seemingly without many friends she was ridiculed by neighborhood girls but remained determined to "live a life that matters." For her, mattering meant embracing the conservative political philosophy and its cornerstone ethics of hard work, self-reliance, limited government and free markets.
The next is the story of Margaret and Denis Thatcher, a divorced World War II veteran and millionaire businessman who promised Margaret that she could pursue her then unconventional notion of a full career in politics. Though he was politically even further to the right than Margaret, Denis allowed his wife to take the lead on this and many other subjects. Theirs is both a love story and a story of accommodation.
The third story here is the story of MP  and then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and how she rose to such prominence that she was eventually considered one of the most significant political figures of the 20th century. Fearless, relentlessly determined and almost shockingly forthright, Thatcher challenged long-held notions of political stability and compromise in a manner that disarmed her critics, intimidated her foes and fortified her allies, sometimes with tough love and sometimes with a chilling imperiousness.
Finally, we have the tale of what we are led to believe is the Margaret Thatcher of today -- a batty old lady plagued by turbulent memories, bad dreams and the ever-present ghost of Denis. She's cantankerous, distant, tired and often confused. And she wonders what it was all worth -- or whether it was worth anything at all.
This last story constantly intrudes on the narrative to the point where it's easy to lose track of time and place and we begin to wonder what's happening when, where and how.
Let's face it: Margaret Thatcher was a very significant leader. And the story of her rise to power and her reign as the longest-serving British prime Minister of the 20th century is one helluva tale. It would have made a great movie -- especially with Streep in the title role.
But what we have here is a choppy mess.
And we are left to wonder why the film turned out this way. Were the filmmakers fearful that their portrait of Thatcher would be too favorable? Is that why they had to turn so much of the movie over to the demented, almost-gothic Thatcher? Is thatcher's fall and dementia supposed to signify some kind of just punishment for her irrepressibly conservative policies?
We just don't know. And we never find out much about many other aspects of Thatcher's life as well including her time at Oxford, her life as a young mother of twins, her relationship with her children and the bond that kept the Thatchers together until Denis' death in 2003.
This could have been a great film; a real triumph.
And the sadness is that it's a good enough film that you can actually see how it could have been great.
For example, through much of the present-day narrative the dowdy old Baroness Thatcher talks about an upcoming return to 10 Downing Street for the unveiling of her official portrait. This was an unusual honor for a living British Prime Minister. And Thatcher did return for that portrait unveiling in 2009. That's where the film should have ended -- with that scene and that fittingly tender moment.
But that event is never shown in the film.
And the whole thing ends with the same spooky dubiousness that plagues the entire movie.
But for Meryl Streep this would have been one of the year's worst films.

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