Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Release Review: The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

With a remarkable front-and-centre performance from Meryl Streep portraying the ‘Iron Lady’ of British politics, Margaret Thatcher, Phyllida Lloyd’s follow up to Mama Mia has been widely anticipated because of the acclaim for Streep's performance. She has already been nominated for a SAG and a Golden Globe and likely to follow that up with yet another Oscar nomination. But with the exception of Streep’s fine work - both portraying the woman during her tenure as British Prime Minister between 1979-91 and with the aid of impressive old-age make-up as an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer's Disease - this conceited examination of Thatcher's career and marriage is a mighty mess. It’s a film that tries to be even-handed and fair, and ends up being one without a clear agenda. It is far too lamely comic to be taken seriously, yet the woman's career was wildly divisive and controversial, and misguided in it's belief that we will sympathise with her purely because she is old and growing progressively senile. Overall, it's a dull and frustratingly mediocre outing, despite Streep's fascinating portrayal and the superb make-up job.


As I was leaving the cinema I overheard a displeased viewer proclaiming that they “hated Margaret Thatcher then and still hate her just as much now.” The career of Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain, greatly polarised public opinion. Thatcher’s life is unveiled here through her jumbled recollections. Her memory is triggered by several seemingly insignificant objects in her home (a figurine for example) which prompts her to remember significant moments in her life – as a headstrong and stubborn young conservative with the desire to be taken seriously in politics, knocking the gender boundaries of politics flat, but making dubious decisions, forever affecting the British economy and social harmony.

It is never really clear what the agenda is. For most of the film we are asked to feel sympathetic towards Thatcher because she comes across a sweet but loony old dotter, sadly believing her husband (a border-line slapstick, overly-theatrical performance by Jim Broadbent) is still with her and possessing ideals no longer relevant in British society. Her playful bickering with the ghost of her husband is often amusing. But for someone in her 80's and reportedly quite ill (she has recently suffered a series of mini-strokes I believe), her late nights, generous whisky pours (this produced lots of laughs in my session) and enthusiastic monologues don't seem to reflect her ailing health. She sleeps uneasily, presumably as a result of the traumatic events that have plagued her life still haunting her and disillusionment with the pace of the modern world (relayed in an early adventure to a local convenience store for overpriced milk).

The first problem in this film isn’t the dull, washed-out photography, though that took me by surprise initially and is an issue, but the structure of the story. How many times does this technique need to be used in a biopic, where we see the life of the eponymous figure documented from an elderly and subjective point-of-view as they are reminded about significant chapters in their lives, relayed to the audience via flashback. It’s the same thing here, with each fragment of her early career and stint as PM comprising of only about 30-40 minutes of the film. With the exception of some of her greatest feats and failures (her continual battles with the IRA, with Argentina over the rule of the Falkland Islands and with domestic and foreign policy) almost everything is quickly skimmed over amidst a conglomeration of poor quality archival footage, misplaced and unnecessary stylistic flairs, odd soundtrack choices and a series of glitzy and silly episodes. One minute she's the strong-willed young conservative upstart (portrayed quite woodenly by Alexandra Roach), the next minute she's being sworn in, and shortly after that she's facing inner-party treachery and forced to resign. In it's attempts to be objective, the result is an obviously shallow and pedestrian examination, and I imagine revealing very little to viewers with a knowledge of her legacy.

The episodes actually reveal very little about the woman herself, or the effects that some of her decisions (mass privatisation, equal taxes for both the working and upper classes and the reckless war in the Falklands that sacrificed the lives of many British and Argentine soldiers) had on the people of Britain. Workers strikes and violent street riots are conveyed through a series of repeated archival footage and oddly angled shots of Thatcher in a car with screaming demonstrators banging on her window. Though she was a feminist inspiration to women and became an unexpected force in a distinctly man's world (we are reminded on numerous occasions by way of a panning shot singling out her dress amidst a row of trousered gentlemen), there are glimpses into her notoriously unlikeable personality. She refuses to budge on decisions opposed by members of her cabinet and even humiliates certain individuals.


The humour is almost always out-of-place (with the exception of Broadbent, who is actually quite amusing at times), while the ridiculous stylistic flourishes (shots of Parliament buildings seem to be from her point-of-view from the back of a car - a sense of childhood wonderment) and melodramatic moments (running up to the wreckage of the car bomb that took the life of fellow MP Airey Neave, and surviving an IRA attack in her own home) failed to evoke much of an emotional response either. Even her daughter Carol, played by Olivia Colman, comes off second best here. The scenes she and and her mother share are both intentionally and unintentionally comic. There is simply too much time spent on Margaret's ongoing relationship with her deceased husband, but these scenes are easily the best in the film. There are issues every time the film skips backwards - but not from Streep, who gives it her all. She is one of the few features worthy of commendation.

My Rating: ★★ (C-)

10 comments:

  1. I know Meryl is getting buzz and obviously you confirm she's quite good here but I just have no desire to see this movie. Biopics with no clear agenda - and I honestly feel like that describes the majority of biopics - bore me to tears.

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  2. My only interest in seeing this is Meryl Streep yet that might not be enough considering about what you said on the fact that the film tries to do too much.

    I'm starting to hate bio-pics in general. It's all because they tend to follow a certain formula and take so many liberties in order to dramatize the story.

    That's why I'm Not There is probably my favorite bio-pic because it broke away from those rules. It wasn't afraid to base things on exaggerations, not be truthful, and to mess around with the structure.

    The one bio-pic which bothers me more than anything is Too Legit to Quit: The M.C. Hammer story which was this TV movie about M.C. Hammer. If you have knowledge on hip-hop, the inaccuracies in that film will definitely annoy you.

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  3. My family comes from a Scottish mining community of the kind destroyed by that heinous bitch's policies in the 1980s. I will not watch this film on principle.

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  4. @ Nick - I really had no desire to see it either, but I was intrigued by Meryl's performance and figured she'd be an Oscar player. I thought it worth seeing for that reason. Same with Albert Nobbs and Glenn Close.

    @ Steven - I can't vouch for any inaccuracies here but they undoubtedly exist - and it is the same old tired structure - the subjective memories of a loony old woman used to relay some of the most heinous and controversial decisions the country has seen. It's not on. Half assed in relaying just how horrible she was, but trying to draw sympathy because she is old and confused, which makes it all okay.

    @ James − I'm sorry to hear about your family's struggle - and I totally understand sticking well clear of this. I think it will make you very angry indeed.

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  5. So this sounds utterly fantastic!

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  6. What a horrendous movie this is, a mess on every level. I've just finished it and I need to calm down a bit before writing more...

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  7. I was so disinterested in writing this review. I just wanted to forget the film. I hated it. Put this review together while playing boardgames with my housemates - hence why it is also a mess.

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    1. I finally articulated my words into a shitty 0/10 review. Phllida Lloyd is a perfect example of why popular isn't best.

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    2. I had a read. It was great. Still, it is making a mint at my cinema. EVERY geriatric has come through to see the 'Thatcher movie' as they call it.

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