Monday, 23 January 2012

The Iron Lady (2012)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

How do you make a film about Margaret Thatcher, one of the most reviled politicians in British history? Do you take the Oliver Stone approach and try to cram in everything, or do you attempt a more personal portrait of the woman rather than the leader?

Baroness Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is suffering from dementia. She’s haunted by hallucinations of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), and over the course of a couple of days she remembers her life from her childhood as a grocer’s daughter to her ignominious exit from 10 Downing Street.

Well, those hoping for a close examination of Thatcher the politician will be disappointed. Writer Abi Morgan (The Hour, Shame) has decided to frame the story of Thatcher’s career with the story of her struggling with dementia and loneliness, thinking back on a life spent on her career rather than with her family. It’s an interesting angle to take and the first fifteen minutes of the film are certainly affecting. Streep is as excellent as you’d expect, and works very well with Broadbent’s genial hallucination of a husband. It’s when we go back in time that the train goes off the rails.

The scenes with wide-eyed young Maggie work to some extent, thanks in large part to Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd’s chemistry. But the filmmakers seem nervous about spending too long in the past and keep returning to Streep in her old-age make-up, drinking too much and struggling to keep a grip on what’s there and what isn’t.  This over-reliance on the framing sequences begins to work against the film as we’re brought back a few too many times. It grows increasingly frustrating as Roach turns into Streep and we’re whisked through her time as Prime Minister in a series of increasingly over-stylised and rushed flashbacks. Stock footage and music of the time are used to convey the world outside Downing Street but the filmmakers are more concerned with showing Thatcher’s scheming cabinet haranguing her as a choreographed pack of obnoxious toffs (I’m not debating the accuracy of that). There are several nicely observed moments but because the film is so cautious not to lean too far one way or the other, the Thatcher-in-power sequences manage to avoid substance almost entirely.

Streep is superb and her portrayal of Thatcher is faultless. The film is at its best when she’s on screen with Broadbent and Olivia Colman (Tyrannosaur), who puts in excellent work as her daughter Carol. However, the decision not to fully examine her time in power means that it feels as though we’re flitting between two films: a moving drama about a once-powerful woman struggling with dementia and solitude, and a glossy, stylish biopic. We’d rather watch the former without the latter.

Verdict: It’s not without merit and Streep is excellent. But a strong start aside, this is a disappointingly slight film for such a controversial subject.



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