Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Iron Lady

There's always a difficult tightrope that must be walked when making a biography film about a controversial historical figure.  The tone, it seems, matters more than the performance more times than not-- even if it's the performance that always must invariably carry the picture.  There must be, at some end, I suppose, a conscious decision of said person.  Oliver Stone has walked this murky path several times, with varying degrees of success-- spinning his liberal conspiracy theories on several US presidents, typically throwing away accuracy, consistency of tone, even logic aside to distill his nervy point of view.  Just in the past two months, Clint Eastwood struggled with his J. Edgar tale with his cultural reverence and political timidity weighing down the figure's controversy and unpopularity.  Now Margaret Thatcher gets the big screen treatment in a wacky new mess directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) and written by Abi Morgan (Shame), both of whom leave the heavy lifting to it's leading lady, Meryl Streep.  Whether due to sheepishness or reluctance of convictions, The Iron Lady succumbs to typical biopic standards of greatest hits speechifying and meandering thoughtlessness; any verve or style or hard-pressing dialogue of Thatcher-the-woman vs. Thatcher-the-politican is dismissed in favor of it's leading lady's technical grace.

That grace is pure, as Streep is as thrilling and commanding as ever.  Of course, that's hardly surprising-- this great actress has always been such a fine technician and a joyful presence.  All of her legendary qualities are put on display from the outset-- the voice, the poise, the pearls that Thatcher loves so, but what makes the performance pop in such a vibrant way (one that the film itself has no idea of what do with) is the great sense of texture and nuance she brings to her Thatcher, one that despite the filmmaker's all too quiet reverence, doesn't let her off the hook so easily, but presents a challenging portrait of a challenging woman whose decisions invariably, and unfortunately, are still being felt today.  Streep has also always been kind of a ham, and that marvel that comes through when a character that she can bite her teeth into comes her way, there's always been a certain charm to it.  Too bad nearly everything that surrounds this adept and powerful character study is nearly all a waste.

Like J. Edgar, The Iron Lady is framed by the old icon looking back-- in this case, we meet a present-day Margaret, applied with heavy make-up work for Streep.  She's a recluse for the most part, battling dementia, eating breakfast with Denis (Jim Broadbent-- the go-to prestige Brit actor to tango with legends playing legends losing their minds; also included Iris), her long deceased husband.  Seen as increasingly over-the-top stages of grief, Thatcher looks back at her life-- her drive and fortitude that brought her from a small-town grocer's daughter to Oxford graduate to the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain.  Framed more so by montage than flashback, the primary chord of The Iron Lady is that of feminist pride.  And by which there is nothing wrong with-- whatever one may feel about Thatcher's politics, her decisions, or the repercussions of both-- there is always something moving about anyone outside who can join the ranks of the all-white-male party and not only stand beside them, but move above them.  There's a certain flake that the movie can be forgiven for because of that; it is the fault of the film that, however, that any of the criticism or cultural distress caused by Thatcher gets nearly thrown away or white-washed completely, or turned-off in the case of a slightly unflattering TV news program.  It would almost feel akin to a Hitler biopic that fails to mention the Nazis.  Reckless and irresponsible, but also a missed opportunity, for Thatcher's story-- while perhaps permanently at odds--  is a compelling one.

Feminist agenda and white-washing of history aside, there's one big piece of bull that discredits the film from any serious merit.  When the young Thatcher, then a determined outside named Margaret Roberts (played by Alexandra Roach) meets her future husband- young Denis is played by Harry Lloyd, she makes a pointed speech she makes after he proposes-- that she, a grand lady of many speeches to come, will never the be the dutiful housewife type, she is meant and destined to do and serve and blather, blather, blather.  The saddest and most difficult thing to swallow in The Iron Lady is while Thatcher's determination of reminded (yet hardly taken into actual account) in scene after scene, the film succumbs to a simple, stand by your man theme that feels fake, not just its conceit, but to Thatcher herself, and the great services that Streep does in embodying her.

There's an even nuttier spin as the film meanders to it's climax, as we spend more time with the losing-her-grips modern day Thatcher.  She's drinking too much and dismissive of her ill health, and while Streep and Broadbent appear to be having marvelous actorly play, there's an altogether strange and baroque undercurrent to the way Lloyd films the last stretch of the film.  Shot in bizarre angles (and while it may appear to be an improvement from the stilted shots of Mamma Mia), it has a jarring, almost horror fun-house effect.  The Iron Lady moves away from conservative porn to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? campiness, with nothing but the stern, but surely tired, shoulders of Streep keeping it afloat.  The actress does her part, and her legend will remain intact, but this film doesn't deserve it in the least. D+

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...