3:58 p.m., Feb. 19
David Elliott on The Big Screen: A Review of The Iron Lady
Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome lead movie critic David Elliott as he crosses the Great Digital Divide and presents this Internet-only review of The Iron Lady:
Some iron was lost by filming Margaret Thatcher through a glass darkly. As the darkness of senile dementia takes over her mind, The Iron Lady becomes a pile of iron filings in a mushy bag of Depends.
The provincial grocer’s daughter became Britain’s first female Prime Minister and its strongest leader since Winston Churchill. She ruled the roost at 10 Downing Street for eleven years. Powerful men, often dressed in Savile Row suits, tended to quail in her presence. The Labour Party, the unions, and most of smart-chic London despised her tough, conservative policies, and also hated her. She was more than an English Reagan, as the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev quickly realized.
The heroine of this odd “tribute” was armed with convictions, then a make-over that included her famous crown of bouffant hair and a poshed accent. “Maggie” rose through the old boys network and kept driving the boys crazy. On film none of the servile or offended males are very challenging. As Michael Heseltine, who finally helped bring Thatcher down in 1991, Richard E. Grant is only a vain cipher on-the-make.
Having previously made Mamma Mia! and Macbeth, Phyllida Lloyd should have been just the director to make a movie about this bold Mamma Macbeth of British politics (husband Denis Thatcher, played with perky charm by Jim Broadbent, is no Macbeth, more like a court jester). But Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan opted for a soft, “humanizing” strategy, as if a little scared of Thatcher’s flint and fire. Between flashbacks and grainy news clips, they keep returning to Margaret in retirement, a shade bitter, still imperious, often foggy in the head but with lucid passages.
Meryl Streep is poignant, and most of her best touches are in the twilight scenes. The rest is very good impersonation, though at times she looks like Faye Dunaway in the Pepsi-Cola phase of Mommie Dearest. There is an excellent scene of Margaret instructing her doctor about thoughts and feelings. The movie should have listened harder. It doesn’t have enough thoughts.
Streep looks great in Maggie’s Tory-blue suits and she has the ego-crushing diction down superbly, though any viewer who wants history will soon be lost. We get a sense that the Falklands War with Argentina not only tested Maggie’s iron but forged it into steel. It still seems a minor war, one famously summarized by writer Jorge Luis Borges as “two bald men fighting over a comb.”
As Thatcher twinkles fondly over memories of The King and I, or recalls girlhood days at the grocery (Alexandra Roach is quite good as young Margaret Roberts), the film shrinks. It is too small and cozily personal to capture the leader who made French President Jacques Chirac squeal in fury, “What does she want – my balls on a tray?” One of her ministers, John Biffen, put the basic fact this way: “She was a tigress surrounded by hamsters.”
Verdict: go for Streep, on her way to a 17th Oscar nomination. Revel in the best memories, if you are a Thatcherite. Not even enemies should gloat over her decline. This great lady was not given to pity, which permeates The Iron Lady. At 86, Mrs.Thatcher is still with us, and I doubt that she would be a fan.
Reader rating: Two stars
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