Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Iron Lady

August 25, 2012

The Iron Lady (2011) ***
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

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With the Republican Convention right around the corner, it's chilling for a liberal such as myself to hear semi-radical conservative economic policies speechified as they are by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, a film that summarizes the Thatcher legacy in Britain through a fictionalized present day Thatcher suffering from dementia. Though the character of Margaret Thatcher is shown as a pioneering female icon of government leadership, screenwriter Abi Morgan pulls no punches highlighting the stubborn principled side of her politics. Without a doubt, Thatcher had her share of victories and defeats. She could also be quite the bully, and we see that very clearly here as well.

Streep won her third Oscar for this film. As the elderly Thatcher, Streep is a wonder to see. She strikes the perfect balance between frailty and vitality. It could have been all too easy to play up the pathetic reality of the struggles within dementia. Instead, Streep holds onto that spark Margaret Thatcher had to have had throughout her life. As the middle-aged Margaret Thatcher, Streep does a fine job, though her performance remains slightly on the surface. She's great with the mannerisms, the voice and the line delivery, but I never got the feeling that I was watching a fully-realized character come to life in her performance. So far, I've seen all of the nominees for Best Actress except for Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I believe Viola Davis gave the best performance in The Help, which is saying something considering that I didn't like The Help at all.

Director Phyllida Lloyd ratchets up the stylistic camerawork, and the results are mixed. Considering that we're supposedly witnessing Thatcher through the mind of an unreliable narrator, Lloyd uses strange edits, sweeping handheld camera shots and bizarre close-ups. The problem is that she really only does this in one scene towards the end when Thatcher brutally bullies the president of her party in front of a room full of members of government. Because of the dramatic change in style, the direction of this scene draws attention to itself and runs the risk of taking the viewer out of the film, as it did for me.

The elderly Thatcher hallucinates that her dead husband, played by Jim Broadbent, is alive and counsels her on how to live her life. After what is usually a spirited conversation between the two, he will disappear, leaving Thatcher confused and frustrated. Fully aware of her own importance, she works diligently to maintain her composure, which can be seen when she's asked about politics at a dinner party and offers a provocative, powerful answer. Clearly Thatcher has not come to terms with her past all the way back to the earlier years of her life. The Iron Lady showcases Thatcher forcing herself to face her life head-on. Perhaps then will she be able to live these last years of her life on her own.

The Iron Lady passably asks us to look at a human being with all her qualities and all her faults. Still, Margaret Thatcher, despite her historical significance, was a polarizing figure. The poor got poorer while the rich got richer, and frankly, she didn't seem to care. All the suffering and inequality in Britain at the time was, in her eyes, a stepping stone towards a better country based in fiscal responsibility and smaller government. Ultimately, she was voted out of office because she was not willing to compromise at all with the opposition. I'm going to need more than being manipulated by an elderly Thatcher with dementia to ignore the damage that she did.