FILM REVIEW: The Iron Lady
But in our fast-forward culture, the distance between the past and present is shrinking. Oliver Stone took on George W. Bush in W. Mark Zuckerberg publicly dis-liked David Fincher's portrait The Social Network. Now, many of Britain's old guard of Conservatives is up in arms about the treatment of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Perhaps some of the indignation comes from the disconnect between what the movie's trailers promised and the actual story The Iron Lady delivers.
In the trailer, the music swells as young Maggie bursts into the political old boy's club -- you might think you're watching a U.K. version of Norma Rae (on the opposite end of the political spectrum, of course). We see the rise of young Margaret (played by Alexandra Roach), the daughter of a humble shopkeeper who takes her father's free market principles to heart.
The promos have been filled with you-go-girl moments: Thatcher putting the Americans in their place over the Falkland Island crisis, for instance, or her stinging rebuke to member of the opposition in Parliament.
This type of political gamesmanship is what you'd expect in The Iron Lady. Nevertheless, when we first meet Maggie on film, it's not at the height of her power. It's in a state of decline. Thanks to an admittedly amazing make-up job, we meet the elder Thatcher as a housebound woman suffering from dementia. She spends her days reminiscing, sorting through closets, playing hide-and-seek with security and all the while talking to Denis the Friendly Ghost (aka the spirit of her dead husband).
If The Iron Lady is anything, it's a love story and a slowly spooling tragedy about a powerful woman looking back. As Thatcher's husband Denis, Jim Broadbent pops up as a spirit, telling the old girl to buck up as the pair putter around like a couple of bickering pensioners.
It's this portrayal of the Iron Lady as a doddering, absent-minded senior that seems to have Thatcher's family and friends apoplectic.
Meanwhile, Streep has defended her portrayal and chalked the backlash up to "a stigma attached to mental frailty." As a daughter who watched both parents battle dementia, it's an issue the actress knows intimately and has been looking to explore for years. If there's a stigma here, however, it's the one against bad filmmaking.
It's awkward to make a movie about an icon when she is still with us and, indeed, the film doesn't cast Thatcher in the kindest light. But the biggest problem with The Iron Lady is simply that it's a sappy, sentimental movie directed by the woman responsible for Mamma Mia, the movie.
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady. (Alliance Films)
Maggie grows up, gets a new 'do, voice lessons and then we rush through the bullet points of her life while, in the present, the elder Thatcher frets about which of Denis' suits to chuck in the bin. It's The King's Speech crossed with a What Not to Wear makeover and sprinkled with a dash of History 101.
As always, Meryl Streep is a remarkable mimic. Watch her Thatcher face down opponents here and then compare it with the original. After that, remind yourself Streep is a Jersey gal. A master shape-shifter, her talent for voices and the breathy but stern quality she channels at the film's finale is impressive.
Still, The Iron Lady teases us with few political tussles and too much time in nostalgia-ville with Margaret and ghostly Denis. Though watching Broadbent appear in an array of spectral loungewear is amusing, his final moments walking off into the light (!) -- like an episode of Touched by an Angel -- reduces one of the most divisive figures in Britain's history to little more than a weeping widow.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
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