The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.

The Iron Lady is an example of a brilliant performance attempting to prop up the flawed execution of a story. Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female Prime Minister. The film bounces around in time, as the elderly, dementia-suffering Thatcher flashes back to previous periods in her life, including her entry into politics (when she refused to soften her image for public consumption), her handling of the conflict in the Falkland Islands, and the intense backlash over her controversial economic policies.

As you'd expect, Streep is phenomenal in the role. Once again, she completely transforms herself. With the aid of a wig, a set of false teeth, and some make-up, she closely resembles Thatcher. But there's more to it than that. The actress also alters the way she talks (adopting both an accent and a Thatcher-esque vocal cadence) and the manner in which she moves. Simple things – like walking or holding a certain posture – are used to make you forget you're watching Meryl Streep and convince you that you're seeing Margaret Thatcher. The former Prime Minister was noted for her tough, uncompromising stances, and Streep nails that sense of dedicated passion, while still suggesting that, underneath it all, Thatcher could be as nervous about the outcomes of her decisions as anyone else. It is a marvelously complex performance, as so many things must be juggled simultaneously. By now, we take it for granted that Streep will give a great performance in any film in which she appears; that in no way diminishes the fact that The Iron Lady proves she still has new tricks up her sleeve with which to amaze us.

Regrettably, everything about The Iron Lady that isn't Meryl Streep is pretty much a letdown. The movie isn't bad; it's just woefully misguided. There are two oft-repeated flaws that ultimately turn a should've-been-great biopic into a close-but-no-cigar misfire. The first is that there are simply too many scenes in which Thatcher, in the deepest throes of her dementia, talks to her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). These scenes are always the same: Thatcher says something, he responds, then the camera cuts to a wider shot of the room, revealing that he isn't really there. Given the fascinating – not to mention divisive – career Thatcher had, it's odd that The Iron Lady would want to spend so much time on this one element of her life, often to the exclusion of other things.

The second, and greater, flaw is that the key hallmarks of her career are handled in montages. The Falkland Islands conflict, for example, is dealt with in about two or three minutes of historical footage mixed with Thatcher making speeches or talking to her advisers. Her tax policies, which were widely believed to favor the rich at the expense of the poor, are also rushed through. We get some shots of angry citizens banging on her car windows and rioting in the streets, but that's about it. Because of this montage approach, the full drama of these historical events is minimized. Even if you already know the facts, it would still be interesting to see them depicted more fully. The Iron Lady is the second film this holiday season, following Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, to give short shrift to all the things we'd most want to see dramatized in a screen biography. Both clearly want to give a more “personal” portrait of their central figures, yet neither finds a way to do so without shortchanging the very elements that make them worthy of a major motion picture in the first place.

This movie is lucky to have Streep. She captures Margaret Thatcher's toughness and refusal to back down. That's the one thing the picture gets right. Director Phyllida Lloyd also worked with Streep in Mamma Mia. While I acknowledge that movie offered a bit of goofy fun, it was in no part due to the filmmaking itself, which was unfocused and scattershot. The same is true here. Some of Lloyd's staging (most notably during a bombing of Thatcher's residence and in the multiple dementia scenes) is done in an amateurish way that threatens to make Streep's noble performance look silly. The screenplay by Abi Morgan (Shame) is also at fault for centering too much on the wrong things and not enough on the right things.

So is The Iron Lady worth seeing? Hard to say. Meryl Streep does some of the finest work of her career, and if you're a fan, you won't want to miss this performance. At the same time, the handling of the plot lets her down. There are certainly moments of interest within the film, just not enough of them to ever make it fully riveting.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Iron Lady is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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