Oscar season is close at hand, and you know what that means: another nomination for Meryl Streep, American cinema’s reigning grand dame. Streep has been nominated more times than anyone (16), but surprisingly has won it only twice–for “Sophie’s Choice” (1983) and “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1980). I thought she would have added another statue last year for Best Actress in “Julie & Julia,” because she managed to play TV chef Julia Child with such sensitivity that the humor came across without turning the easily spoofed Child into a caricature. Watching her stir things and toss out quips in the kitchen you could have sworn you were really watching Child at work.
You get the same sensation seeing her performance of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Though Alexandra Roach plays Thatcher in her twenties and thirties, Streep is made up to portray the former prime minister as she looked in the ‘70s after she’d been active in politics for a while, as she looked at various stages during her time as prime minister, and, we’re to presume, as she looks now, at age 86. It’s the make-up and Streep’s uncanny performance of an elderly woman with encroaching dementia that seem the most Oscar noteworthy. If you watch Streep’s eyes and her body language, you have to admire how completely she was able to transform herself into Thatcher at that advanced age, assisted by some of the most incredible make-up and prosthetic work I’ve seen.
But “The Iron Lady” isn’t as riveting a bio-pic as you’d think, given Streep’s talent and Thatcher’s career.
Margaret Thatcher was the first female elected to lead a Western nation. She earned that nickname because of her tough talk and inflexible positions. Like her American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, she shares credit for helping to bring about the end of the Cold War. When Argentina’s military leaders invaded the Falkland Islands to try to acquire the territory, Thatcher responded with Iron Lady swiftness and made the decision to go to war. As a result, her popularity, which had waned because of economic policies, rose again. And her time in office–from May 1979 to November 1990–was the longest of any U.K. prime minister of the 20th century, one reason why in 2007 a bronze statue of her was erected in the House of Parliament.
But Thatcher also had her detractors. Like Reagan, she was a staunch conservative who overestimated the power of privatization and a free market to cure all of society’s ills, and considered higher taxes to be the first step on the road to socialism. She favored what conservatives are now calling a “flat tax,” where rich and poor pay the same amount. And like Reagan, she cut spending, but not in the areas of defense or military funding. Rather, it was the education system that she sliced and diced, even before she became prime minister. As Secretary of State for Education and Science she recommended the elimination of a free milk program and suggested other deep cuts to the education budget. And she was no friend of labor, opposing unions at every opportunity.
“The Iron Lady” should have been more exciting, given how controversial a figure Thatcher was while in office, and given the historical events that transpired. But screenwriter Abi Morgan curiously chooses to emphasize Thatcher in decline. Rather than briefly showing us Thatcher as she appears in the present–as a doddering woman who still sees and talks with her recently departed husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent)–then taking the first opportunity to segue back in time to when the two of them met and telling the main story in standard flashback, Morgan gives us 30 minutes of that, then keeps pulling us back into the present for more of the same. That gets tedious, but even more egregious are the shots that seem throwaways–so brief and pointless that the only effect they have is to pull you out of the more interesting narrative moments from Thatcher’s prime minister past. More than a few times these cutaways to the present but the brakes on the main narrative, just as it was picking up momentum. And overall, much too much time is spent detailing her physical and mental deterioration, as well as trying to show the loving relationship she had with her husband, perhaps her biggest backer.
The thing is, all of that became readily apparent after the long intro. There was no new information or insights provided in later cutaways to the present. All it did was dwell on Thatcher’s dementia.
Sometimes it’s cinematic shorthand that gives Thatcher’s accomplishments short shrift, as Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd (“Macbeth,” “Mamma Mia!”) seem content to show a grown daughter attending to Mum in her dotage–the only scene we get of any of her children, really, apart from one that has them running down the lane calling after their oblivious mother as she drives off to begin serving in Parliament. Other than that we’re just told that the son doesn’t want to visit his mother. Why? We don’t know. The four years Thatcher spent as Leader of the Opposition also seems summarily treated.
Sometimes it’s stock shots that throw the film off its axis, as when a wide-eyed Thatcher drives to London for the first time as an entering member of Parliament and we get the obligatory shot of Parliament through the windows of the car, then see up-angle shots of the iconic pillars and statues outside and inside the building—shots we’ve seen in every film like this since “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The constant interruption is a distraction, especially when it interrupts bio-history as it just starts to get a head of steam. Thankfully the acting is worth the price of admission. It’s Streep’s performance and her interaction with Broadbent that make the film a pleasure to watch, which is why you have to wonder if the filmmakers themselves became so enraptured that they decided to spend more time than they should have on the former prime minister’s dotage . . . or maybe they just were averse to using a standard flashback frame. Would the filmmakers have emphasized decline and dotage if the protagonist were male? No one but they can say. As much as I loved Streep’s performance as Thatcher in decline, I found myself wanting more of the Iron Lady and less of the rusted-out one.