Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “The Iron Lady”

Would it be predictable to say that the marvelous Meryl Streep has delivered a terrific performance once again? Of course, for that is par for the course and quite frankly not a revelation. It is often said that Streep can elevate even sub-par material such as Julie and Julia and One True Thing with her great work. There's nothing she's crap at, as this recent tribute to her at the Kennedy Center Honors attests. Sadly, The Iron Lady, for all of the preliminary publicity and high expectations, is one of those occasions. This is not something I wanted to write, given how excited I have been for months about this project since it was first announced.

Phyllida Lloyd’s much-awaited and controversial biopic on Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, arrives with considerable fanfare and a lot of support from The Weinstein Company. Streep has long been touted as being overdue to win a third Academy Award and once again, she is in the thick of an awards season campaign armed with a clutch of prizes for her revered work, including the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress Award and nominations for the SAG and Golden Globe Awards.

Let’s discuss how deeply committed Streep is to the role. All of Thatcher’s mannerisms are here: the distinctive authoritative voice, the slight cock of the chin upward, the indomitable spark behind her eyes when she is about to flay an opponent politically. I attended the advanced screening with a British friend well-versed in all things Thatcherite, and he said flat-out that the voice was spot-on. Indeed, in her body language, communicated via subtle shifts as well as grander gestures, it was as if Thatcher had died and inhabited Streep’s body as the next vessel.

The film is framed around the present day. We see Thatcher being kept almost prisoner in her home, where guards at her posh Kensington flat are ordered to prevent her from going out. “Are they keeping out the riff-raff or are they holding you in?” asks her husband, the ever-patient Denis Thatcher. Jim Broadbent, as Denis, has played the long-suffering / supportive husband type of an accomplished woman before, most notably in his quietly heartbreaking Oscar-winning work in Iris. Here, Denis functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on the events as they happen and also in the present day, as Thatcher recalls her political past and we hurtle forward and backward in time without so much as a title card to at least give viewers greater context, especially those who may not have been fully immersed in Thatcher-era British politics and its place on the global stage. The catch, of course, is that Denis has been dead for several years, and his presence simultaneously soothes and tortures her, as she comes face-to-face with political challenges she overcame and considers the long-term consequences of her often controversial decisions.

British playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan is no stranger to writing challenging material. In addition to The Iron Lady, she co-wrote Steve McQueen’s blistering Shame which is also currently in cinemas. Morgan’s previous work also includes the multi-BAFTA-winning miniseries Sex Traffic. While it’s artistically risky for Morgan to frame the film within the context of Thatcher’s dementia, the focus on her state of being unfortunately leaves out a lot of the political drama that made Thatcher such a riveting historical figure, regardless of what you thought of her political stance.

We spend considerable time inhabiting Thatcher’s current existence and only see fleeting remembrances of significant events such as the Falklands War, the devastating miners’ strike and the ongoing tensions with Northern Ireland. Each of these events would have made a fine film of its own as we explore how Thatcher reacts, plots, and thinks, and yet they are just snippets. By contrast, what made Stephen Frears’s The Queen, another British piece about a leader coping with modern times, so brilliant was that it explored deeply the rationale and acute psychology of the players in a moment of crisis. In fact, there is no mention of the royal family at all in The Iron Lady, which is bizarre given the relationship between prime ministers and the monarch in the last century. The Iron Lady is a “greatest hits” package of requisite events that must be mentioned simply because they were inextricably linked with Thatcher. Consider the checklist you made for your last grocery run and you’ll have a sense of how Morgan wrote the political episodes. There are a lot of speeches and declarations made, and Streep gamely delivers them, but there aren’t truly intimate conversations on the wheeling and dealing going on behind the scenes. We hear references to privatization, taxation and the like, but no real understanding other than her vociferous speechifying. One must resist the temptation during The Iron Lady to grab your mobile and try to fill in the historical gaps using Wikipedia. The historical flashbacks simply form an indistinguishable montage of Thatcher riding in unprotected town cars while political protesters wielding signs beat down on her windshield. The problem is that we make neither heads nor tails of what each issue was really all about. Did you know that despite being conservative, she was pro-choice and was in favour of gay rights? No? Me neither. Even that much knowledge the film doesn't attempt to bring to light, that is how cursory the politics are in The Iron Lady.

In fact that’s what becomes of this film in totality. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who worked with Streep on the rather ignominious Mamma Mia!, has a flair for orchestrating set pieces and no one denies her skills as a show woman with a sense of occasion and pageantry. And yet that’s all we get: pageantry. Denoting what should have been an intimate character drama as such is not encouraging, because it unfortunately means that The Iron Lady is like the equivalent of a ticker-tape parade for a long-revered but obsolete public figure no one cares for who has been wheeled out of retirement and named Grand Marshall. In other words, it’s slightly grotesque and it’s not at all an intimate affair, even if you can’t look away from it. For all of its attempts to understand Thatcher’s view, considering that she is suffering from Alzheimer’s at the moment, the question remains: how can you make a psychological drama about someone who can’t even communicate her current mental state? The conceit would be downright patronizing if Streep hadn’t saved the material due to the sheer humanity she injects into her performance.

Ultimately, The Iron Lady itself isn’t a bad film. However, it is a project with so much that the filmmakers wish to communicate that it threatens to collapse under the burden of conveying so much history and psychological drama. By straddling the line between the two without ever fully committing to one or the other, the result is a dissatisfying narrative and rather hastily-made film that could easily have been a three-hour biopic, one with more attention that would have greatly benefitted the material. Thankfully, we have the sublime Streep, fully dedicated to her performance and completely riveting, almost single-handedly salvaging the proceedings. You just know this would have been completely misbegotten had she not been in it.

The Iron Lady opened in New York and Los Angeles on December 30, 2011. It premiered in British cinemas on January 6, 2012, and opens wide across North America on January 13, 2012.