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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 20, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 03
Streep brilliant, but Lady has no iron
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Streep brilliant, but Lady has no iron

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Iron Lady
Now Playing


Can a mediocre movie be made worthwhile by a single performance?

That's the question posed by director Phyllida Lloyd's (Mamma Mia!) The Iron Lady, a sort-of biography of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher written by Abi Morgan (Shame). Granted, when said performance is delivered by Meryl Streep, when the noted thespian's work is staggering and stunning in almost every respect (easily worthy of all the Oscar buzz and hype swirling around it), that question is probably far easier to answer than it otherwise might have been. But the simple query remains: can a single strong performance change a movie from mediocre to worth your time?

The Iron Lady is a mediocre movie. Sure, it is a gigantic step in the right direction over the odious Mamma Mia!, and certainly all of the elements of this one (cinematography, editing, music, makeup, production design, casting) are close to spot-on, but as a fully realized examination of one of the most controversial and important political figures of the late 20th century, the film falls exasperatingly short. The movie takes no stand, offers up zero food for thought, and anyone wanting to examine their feelings - or even attempt to discover what said feelings might be, both pro and con - about Thatcher won't find anything substantive to munch on here.

The entry into M.T.'s world, her loving nickname delivered to her by doting husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), is through the dementia the iconic political figure is currently fighting. It's an interesting way to begin, and one that isn't without promise as it showcases a side and a battle of Thatcher the majority of us know nothing about. Problem is, this allows Morgan and Lloyd to go back into the prime minister's rise and fall without trying to examine it. Everything is shown in snippets, in brief vignettes, so trying to analyze any of her actions or decisions (coal mine shutdowns, tax reform, the Falkland Island invasion, and so forth) is borderline impossible. There's no grasp about who this person is, what made her what she was, what allowed her to find the will and the drive to make the unlikely prospect of becoming Britain's ruler a possibility. It's frustrating, and for the life of me I'm not entirely sure what the filmmakers were thinking when they decided to tackle this woman and the voluminous amounts of material making her who she was - errr, is - in such a manner.

On the flip side, by going down the path of Thatcher's dementia Morgan and Lloyd give Streep free reign to deliver a performance that is beyond mesmerizing. Because we don't know much about her current medical situation, because the personal facets of her life are understandably kept from public consumption, the legendary actress gets to go in directions no one could have ever seen coming. This isn't impersonation, this isn't a caricature; this is some sort of miraculous creation on Streep's part that constantly astounds and amazes. It is arguably the best performance of 2011, the one all others, male or female, should be judged against, and it wouldn't bother me a lick if after 18 years of being an also-ran, the two-time winner picked up her third Academy Award.

So does that mean I should give the movie a pass? That I shouldn't be bothered by Broadbent's odd theatrics (it's like he stepped right out of that epilogue sequence featuring M.T. and Denis at the end of For Your Eyes Only) or that the young Margaret, so dynamically portrayed by Alexandra Roach, comes across as something a schizophrenic harpy? Should I not care that I knew no more about Thatcher's days as prime minister after watching the movie as I did beforehand, or that I wanted to know more about her advisors and supporters than what could be found in the precious few bits of dialogue delivered here?

Incredibly, part of me wants to do just that and more, as Streep truly is that magnificent. I was never bored by the movie. There are some good ideas here, moments to cherish and take hold of in a way that feels precious, intimate, and natural. But honestly? I'm sorry but this just isn't enough, and for a woman who changed the face of international politics forever, for a figure who challenged the very notion of what a leader could be, I wanted more. More importantly, she deserved more, and on that point alone The Iron Lady is a staggering misfire, difficult to even partially recommend.

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