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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Iron Lady’ a wasted opportunity

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

“One of the greatest problems of our age,” an elderly Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) observes, “is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.”

The same problem envelops the entirety of “The Iron Lady,” a biopic directed by “Mamma Mia!” director Phyllida Lloyd that chronicles the life of the former British prime minister; the film feels too many things about its subject while never thinking about her impact.

The film begins in the present, with Thatcher now in her 80s and suffering from the beginning signs of dementia. Powerless in her old age, she spends most of her time alone or speaking to visions of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent).

Their conversations spark remembrances of things, sparking the requisite flashbacks that detail her rise from grocer’s daughter to influential member of the Conservative Party, a remarkable feat considering that party’s emphasis on pedigree. She leads the Conservatives to victory in 1979, beginning her 11-year tenure as prime minister.

Here is where the film stumbles the most. It spends remarkably little time on Thatcher’s years in office, and what details it gives are largely surface-level. Thatcher is one of the most controversial figures in late 20th-century politics; depending on whom you ask, she either saved the United Kingdom from stagnation or destroyed the working class with her unapologetically conservative policies. An entire film could be made to focus on her ministership.

Yet little of this is chronicled in “The Iron Lady.” The film shows her assume power and face middling poll numbers as her country slogs through a recession. Thatcher’s myriad advisers tell her to moderate her policies, but she refuses; the audience never finds out what policies they’re discussing. Similarly, Lloyd employs the standard images of protesters massing in the streets—and, at some points, around Thatcher’s car—yet never lets on why they’re doing this.

The film reserves specifics for one incident: the 1982 Falkands War with Argentina. When Thatcher is told of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands, she immediately declares the islands must be won back; when an American diplomat remarks that the islands are “of no social or economic importance,” she icily draws parallels between the Argentine invasion and Pearl Harbor.

The Falklands War undoubtedly impacted Thatcher’s tenure, as her poll ratings skyrocketed in its aftermath, but Lloyd seems to include the conflict only as yet another example of how resilient Thatcher was in the face of adversity. Thatcher heroically fights back tears at the thought of the 258 British servicemen killed in the war, but she never considers whether it was worthwhile. Instead, we’re treated to a lovely montage depicting how wonderful the remainder of her tenure was—she even gets to dance with Ronald Reagan! The small portion of the film that deals with her fall from power—a leadership contest erupts with her own party in response to her abrasive personality and inability to compromise—seems almost incidental.

When “The Iron Lady” was first announced, commentators worried that the film would boast an excessively right- or left-wing perspective. This isn’t really the case, as the film lacks any perspective on Thatcher’s politics. Lloyd’s analysis of Thatcher boils down to this: She could be kind of a jerk, but she never forgot how much a pint of milk cost!

Instead, the film remains much more preoccupied with her personal life, specifically her marriage to Denis. From the moment he asks her to marry him, Thatcher makes it clear that she will always maintain her career. The remainder of the film documents the push-and-pull between her political drive and her familial obligations. Whenever Thatcher takes on another obligation, Denis responds by alternately being grumpy or the definition of supportive. It’s often cute—he calls her MT, she calls him DT—but it also feels generic, as though their relationship is like every other relationship in every other middling film.

In the present, Lloyd is clearly fascinated by the idea that age strips even the most powerful of their authority. With her husband dead, Thatcher is isolated and alone; her attendants and her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) believe her to be more senile than she actually is. This portion of the film is merely speculative, however, and consequently it’s strange that Lloyd would foreground this part of her story. If Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan wanted to create a film about the unfairness of aging with a light romantic subplot, then this film could have been about any old person; instead, its subject just happens once to have been the most powerful woman in the world.

Streep’s performance is the one thing that salvages the film. Streep has long possessed the title of most skilled mimic in Hollywood, and that still remains the case. She perfectly adopts the real Iron Lady’s voice, and with the help of make-up she even bears an uncanny resemblance to Thatcher. Her performance, however, is not just a skilled mimicry but in fact carries real depth. It’s the only depth the movie possesses and, as good as Streep is, it’s a shame she has dedicated the last few years to appearing in films beneath her talent, like the light “Julie & Julia,” the surprisingly middling “Doubt” and the aforementioned atrocity “Mamma Mia!”

In light of Streep’s performance, little room exists for any other actors. Broadbent handles his scenes well enough—he’s made a science of the “supporting husband” archetype—but dead Denis’ appearances are so repetitive that they become overbearing. When Thatcher finally packs away his clothes and convinces Denis to leave her alone, it’s a relief.

Thankfully, that’s also when the movie finally ends.