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The Iron Lady Review: Backwards and In High Heels

By Brian Prisco | Film | January 3, 2012 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | January 3, 2012 |

Ginger Rogers was an amazing dancer. So much that people love to brag that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. But the only problem with making that statement is that it only values Ginger Rogers in relation to the men she worked with. She was an amazing dancer, Fred Astaire or not. It was my concern when Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award, and everyone started to crow about how big a step this was for female directors. Kathryn Bigelow didn’t win because she has a vagina, she won because she was a fucking great director. But, as quoth Ms. Rogers, “It’s a man’s world.” So it’s sad that every achievement a woman makes has to be valued because she’s a woman, and not because she’s a remarkable person. The Iron Lady is a biopic about Margaret Thatcher, the first female British Prime Minister, which falls into the same trap of heralding her biology rather than her biography. It comes at us on two fronts — Thatcher’s history as Prime Minister and Thatcher now in fading years. It fails at both. With the elderly Thatcher portion, had the film merely been a pseudo Man of La Mancha, it could have been a fascinating portrait. But it quickly loses steam — mostly because Thatcher is still alive and so there’s no natural and logical ending. As a historical biopic, it’s embarrassing, as it vag-plasters Thatcher’s controversial economic policy and war profiteering to make the film about a plucky young girl playing on the boys’ football team. It doesn’t matter how flattering an imitation Meryl Streep does manage when the entire gist of the film is venerable British politicians popping monocles and spluttering, “B-b-but YOU’RE a GIRL?!”

The Iron Lady opens with an elderly Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) purchasing some milk and butter at the local Pakistani corner store. We soon find out she escaped her elder care nurse in order to feel more independent. Thatcher begins a lovely exchange with her charming husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who we soon discover has died several years ago. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) comes around to care for her elderly parent, making sure she’s ready for her dinner parties and generally doing well. It’s an amazing way to introduce a historical figure, and instantaneously made me sympathetic towards Thatcher. If the film itself were just about Thatcher and her relationship with her dead husband Denis, if the context of her ministry was put in perspective through her waning years and creeping dementia, the film actually would have been remarkable. Akin to the wonderful The King’s Speech, a film that despite all the alleged historical inaccuracies and convenient rug-brushing was terrific and lovely.

Instead, we’re given a Cliffs Notes version of Thatcher’s rise and reign, done in flashback, which coupled with Thatcher’s elderly hallucinations, gives everything a kind of untrustworthy bent. Similar to how many Republicans have deified Ronald Reagan in recent years, Thatcher’s given equal sainthood. While she doesn’t necessarily come out and say, “Let them eat cake!,” she is expected to have a recipe on hand that she can prepare would people want cake. Her entire term is boiled down to her being a woman who beat the odds. It’s not empowering in the slightest, if they wanted to show how tough a bird Margaret Thatcher was in office, they could have done her the common courtesy of treating her as one of the boys. If the filmmakers had at least taken a stance on Thatcher’s policy or rule, it would have been one thing, but they chose instead to focus on the fact that she was the leader of her country in funny little hats.

The only value of the film seems to be whether or not Meryl Streep puts on a great performance. And she honestly does. She’s remarkable. And while it’d be false not to attribute so much of this to the makeup and costuming, it takes an actress of Streep’s caliber to pull this off. Is she transcendent, is she the acting Goddess that we should all kneel before? I wouldn’t go that far. She brings the same gravitas and skill to the performance as she did as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, only she gets to make stirring political speeches instead of speeches while stirring pots. I prefer her as the elderly Thatcher, which is when the movie shines. Her interchanges with the delightful Jim Broadbent are glorious. But as a biopic, it’s stale and fawning. And by trying to blend frail failing old lady with iron-willed Prime Minister, the entire thing is more like Julie’s recipes than Julia’s.

Phyllida Lloyd only other major cinematic contribution has been Mamma Mia!, and she was working from a script by Abi Morgan, a playwright who was responsible for the dreadful shitshow that was Shame. But hey, Morgan’s written two scripts this year will unquestionably garner best actor nods for the two leads, so bully for her. She’s only to be trumped by John Logan, who wrote Hugo, Coriolanus, and Rango. But, Morgan’s a girl, so you know, it was harder for her to be genius what with all the menstruating and thinking about babies. And that kind of ridiculous sentiment is what ruins The Iron Lady. Honestly, I don’t think there’s too much value in doing a biographical study on a historical figure while they are still alive. Have there been successful ones? Sure, but more often than not, if you don’t know the death and legacy of a specific person, it difficult to portray them properly. The Iron Lady will be recognized for Streep’s outstanding performance, as well it should be, but as a film, it tries to do everything backwards and in high heels, and it stumbles and falls flat on its ass.

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