Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Iron Lady

Alternate Title:  Decline and Fall of the British Empress

One sentence synopsis:  One of the most important Prime Ministers of Britain looks back on her career and life.

Things Havoc liked:  Meryl Streep is the greatest actor in the world.  In fact, as far as I can tell, she has been the greatest actor in the world since the early 80s.  Though there are films of hers that I do not care for (Out of Africa), there exists, to my knowledge, no film in which she is not uniformly excellent.  It therefore should come as no surprise to anyone that in The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep does a flawless job playing Margaret Thatcher, a job so perfect that for any other actress it would be considered the performance of a lifetime.  In Streep's case, it's merely January.

Though Streep does not look much like Thatcher did (Thatcher had an very bird-like face in my opinion), Streep evokes Thatcher in mannerism, voice, gesture, and overall presence effortlessly, whether playing Thatcher at the height of her power, or in the midst of senile dementia (more on that in a moment).  She gets across without a word what made Thatcher the Iron Lady, what qualities she evoked that enabled her to become the first female head of government in the western world, how it was that she was able to rule as prime minster longer than anyone else in the Twentieth Century, as well as what attributes finally drove her from power.  Never once in the entire film did I imagine I was watching anyone but Margaret Thatcher, even when the person I was seeing was twenty years' removed from the Thatcher I remember from old footage of the end of the Cold War.  Insofar as a biopic must evoke the character it focuses upon, Streep delivers.

This isn't to say that the rest of the cast is bad.  Jim Broadbent, one of my favorite English supporting actors, plays Dennis Thatcher, the long-suffering husband of the Iron Lady, in a performance that evokes quiet middle-class comfort and quotidian contentment perfectly.  Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd (whom I last saw being awesome in Doctor Who) play the Thatchers as young adults, and do credible jobs of portraying the people they would one day become.  Roach in particular never goes completely off the deep end with material that could make Thatcher out to be a shrill lunatic, but instead plays her as a perfectly normal young woman whose sense of social inferiority has simply been amputated.  She seems less angry that men want to dismiss her as merely a young girl (and a grocer!) than completely uninterested in their dismissal.  It is as though she has no time to waste dealing with the very subject of these men's sexism, not even for anger, and so casts it aside without bothering to acknowledge its existence.  Thatcher herself, while a trendsetter, was not a feminist, and the movie does not attempt to turn her into one.

It is perhaps impossible to be neutral on the subject of Thatcher's politics (Roger Ebert spends half his review bashing the Falklands War).  Even today, she is described variously as a miracle-worker and the Antichrist, depending on one's opinion of her cold-war era conservative politics.  To the movie's credit, it neither sides with either camp, nor tries some sort of artificial "balance" between the two sides, but rather presents her politics and behavior as it finds it.  Thatcher's economic policies are given quite a bit of time, and shown to work at times and produce hardship at others.  What is key, however, is that she is given the opportunity to present the rationale and theory behind her politics, in a manner that is neither reverent nor a straw-man designed to make her look evil.  We see why she did what she did, even if we don't agree with it.  Her handling of the Falklands is shown in some detail, and presented as the victory it was, while her pitiless and petty bullying of her colleagues and even cabinet officials is displayed in full, and shown to have real consequences.  Coming out of the film, I could not decide whether I thought the film sided with or against Thatcher on the whole, nor did I believe that the movie had ducked the question.  Such is perhaps the best thing they could have done.

Things Havoc disliked: If only I could say the same about the focus.

The major, abiding flaw of this movie is the lopsided focus that it places upon Thatcher as she is today: old, frail, suffering from dementia, and gradually losing her ability to live and act independently.  Of the two hours or so that this movie runs, I would guess that 40-50% of that time is taken up with scenes of Thatcher in this state, twenty years or more removed from her days of power, watching her struggle to keep names and people straight, or hallucinating the presence of her dead husband.  That is an enormous amount of time, way more than the requirements of a framing plot, and as the movie rolls on, it begins to feel almost perverse, as though the film were glorying in showing the Iron Lady brought down at last by senility and old age.

In fairness, looking back, I don't actually believe that was the intention of the filmmakers, and yet I cannot conceive for the life of me of what they were thinking in presenting the movie this way.  The framing story is of Thatcher trying to let go of her dead husband, whom she still hallucinates, and to move on, which is fine, except that the film is supposedly a biopic of one of the most powerful and influential women of the twentieth century.  As such, we sit there wondering where exactly the filmmaker is trying to go with all of this endless footage of Thatcher barely able to hold a conversation.

To her credit, Streep's performance in these scenes is no less convincing than her performance in the rest of the film, and she even manages to infuse traces of Thatcher's indomitable spirit into them, but ultimately the film is not about Thatcher in her twilight years, and taking so much time up with the senility topic denies the film the chance to explore more elements of Thatcher's career.  Ronald Reagan, whose close relationship with Thatcher was so instrumental in maintaining the "Special Relationship" between Britain and America, is not in the movie at all.  The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War is barely mentioned.  While I applauded the delicate balance that the film took with Thatcher politically, I cannot help but be baffled by its belief that Thatcher imagining her dead husband for the thirteenth time is more important than Thatcher's role in winning the cold war.

Final thoughts:  I almost feel as though I'm being unfair to this movie by criticizing it as I have. It is, after all, in poor taste to criticize a movie for not being another movie. And yet, given what this movie was purported to be, I feel deeply unsatisfied by it. Margaret Thatcher was one of the greatest women in modern history, and deserved to have her story explored and portrayed by the greatest actress in the world. And while that is more or less what happened here, I get the sense that in their haste to tell some other story of their own invention about old age, dementia, and grief, the filmmakers forgot to actually tell the story of Margaret Thatcher.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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