Friday, January 27, 2012

The Iron Lady: Sabotaged by a tin script

The Iron Lady (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for some violent images and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.27.12

Here’s the thing:

This film’s title notwithstanding, Meryl Streep’s phenomenal performance notwithstanding, the politically tinged reviews and commentary notwithstanding, The Iron Lady is not about Margaret Thatcher.
Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head, right of center) has no inkling of the verbal
beating he's about to endure, when an unexpectedly spiteful and nasty Margaret
Thatcher (Meryl Streep) decides to belittle him in front of all their Conservative
Party colleagues. As a means of conveying the reason behind her own party's
decision to rebel against her, though, this scene is woefully inadequate.

If you’re expected the saga of the woman who faced “staggering prejudice of class and gender ... to become a lone woman in a sea of men ... doggedly wrestling with a nation in turmoil, in order to wrest Britain from its postwar decline” — quoting from the press notes — well, you’ve wandered into the wrong film.

Director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan have, instead, made a sweet, perceptive study of grief, and the courage required to abandon the memories of a departed loved one: the need to close that door, however reluctantly, and move on.

The protagonist in question happens to be Margaret Thatcher, but that’s almost incidental.

Which, yes, is rather strange ... and artistically selfish. Thatcher’s tumultuous life obviously deserves a thorough, well-researched big-screen biography, but this isn’t that film; Lloyd and Morgan clearly had other fish to fry. And with Streep having so thoroughly inhabited Britain’s infamous, alternately loved and loathed prime minister, nobody else is likely to tackle the role for a very, very long time.

Lloyd is primarily a stage director, best known for her opera productions; she’s therefore accustomed to broad, ostentatious characters who often function more as metaphors than flesh-and-blood people. Her previous movie credits are restricted to a filmed version of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, a recent version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and 2008’s big-screen adaptation of Mamma Mia! The latter paired her with Streep, and three years is about the right time for The Iron Lady to have progressed from gestation to awkward life.

To be sure, the larger-than-life Thatcher easily could have walked off an opera stage, and Streep — under Lloyd’s meticulous guidance — delivers the performance of an already magnificent career. The impersonation is stunning; anybody who remembers the way Thatcher dominated 1980s news feeds will be amazed, time and again, by Streep’s dead-on mannerisms, gestures and oddly inflected speech (an affectation Thatcher cultivated in order to minimize her tendency to sound shrill and hectoring).

The tilt of the head, the forever disapproving gaze — as if everybody else in the room has disappointed Mother, and must atone — the often condescending manner, and, in particular, the walk. Goodness, that walk: that absolutely unforgettable method of navigating down a hallway. Streep nails it all, but not — never — in a way that feels mannered, calculated or otherwise artificial. She simply slips into Thatcher’s skin.

But that’s the Thatcher we remember — the lightning rod for social and political discontent, during Britain’s angry 1980s — and Lloyd spends very little time with that person. Aggravatingly little time, in fact. In terms of Thatcher the political animal, we get a much better sense of that person from Alexandra Roach’s spirited performance as the feisty teenage and twentysomething Margaret: the doting grocer’s daughter from small-town Grantham, who devoured the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps speeches given by her conservative father, who served as the local mayor.

The subsequent highlights of Thatcher’s rise to power, and her turbulent 11 years at 10 Downing St. — the first female head of government in the West, and the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century — whirl past in a grotesquely abbreviated, CliffsNotes haze.

Lloyd is particularly sloppy with respect to the passage of time; absent a thorough grounding in late 20th century British history, you’ll scramble to place numerous crucial events in context and perspective. As just one example, we’re left with the impression that the Falkland Islands crisis, and Britain’s two-month war with Argentina, occurred well into Thatcher’s career; in fact, that was 1982, only three years into her first term as prime minister.

While it’s easy to understand that the resulting patriotic fervor helped Thatcher win her second term in 1983, there’s no mention of her third-term win in 1987 ... or how she managed to pull that off, despite the plunging decline in popularity resulting from her having crushed the Miners’ Union in the wake of the year-long strike against coal pit closures.

For that matter, I’m pretty sure we never hear the infamous phrase “that bloody woman,” nor do we get any sense of the fury Thatcher ignited in Scotland, particularly when she levied her universally loathed flat-rate “poll tax” there in 1987, one year ahead of England. That blindingly misguided “community charge ... in which a dustman paid the same as a duke” eventually precipitated the backlash within her own Conservative party, which in turn led to her resignation in 1990.

This “betrayal by her own” is reduced to a single policy meeting with party colleagues, which Thatcher wrecks when she humiliates key ally Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), by snatching and grammatically correcting his agenda notes like a quarrelsome second-grade teacher.

Is this the first sign of the mental confusion — incipient dementia? — that we see in the much older, present-day Thatcher, with whom we spend most of this film?

Impossible to know. But I can say this: Morgan’s agenda-laden script is every bit as irritating, for the way it dips into Thatcher’s career only when convenient, as Dustin Lance Black’s equally unbalanced screenplay for J. Edgar, which flat-out skipped three decades of that equally fascinating individual’s career, choosing instead to suggest that closeted gay anxiety gave this ruthless FBI titan the nervous instability of a fruit bat.

Character is supposed to serve history, in a biographical study; real-world events aren’t malleable, existing only to be twisted in order to serve a writer’s fanciful notions.

That said — and treating Streep’s character here simply as an elderly woman, rather than as the elderly Margaret Thatcher — Morgan’s depiction of old age is sensitive, poignant and deeply felt. We spend roughly three days with the present-day Thatcher, now in her 80s, her world constrained by security needs and the debilities of age.

She engages in lengthy conversations with her beloved but long-dead husband, Denis (a delightfully precocious Jim Broadbent), as a means of preserving his presence in her life. These dialogues — and Thatcher’s growing awareness that they’re unhealthy, and that it’s time to move on — trigger the memories that allow our glimpses into her earlier life.

The catalyst is Thatcher’s decision, after eight years, to finally let go of Denis’ clothes and possessions: a step that has been encouraged by adult daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), who hovers about her mother like a nervous moth. (Carol’s twin, Mark, remains absent from this story, aside from home movies of his childhood self.)

Most films would employ these present-day scenes as a brief framing device, in order to lend context to the bulk of a script that focuses on the character’s younger, more vibrant self. But it’s the other way ’round here, and that’s actually fine; I quickly grew irritated with Lloyd and Morgan’s maddeningly superficial depiction of the ’80s, and resented these scenes as a needless distraction from this film’s real story, which concerns the 80-something Margaret’s courageous decision to release her husband’s spirit.

This part of the movie feels authentic: the larkish chatter between Margaret and her imagined Denis, the quietly defiant Margaret resenting the condescending attitude, however unintentional, of the “handlers” who manage her ever move.

Great as Streep is, as the vibrant Thatcher we remember from the 1980s, she’s even better as this much older person: a woman accustomed to power, rendered almost powerless by age and (perhaps?) the first whisper of senility. Streep’s performance as this woman is breathtaking, particularly when conveying Margaret’s shudder at the exploratory touch of what could be dementia, and her recognition that talking aloud to her long-dead husband ... well ... could be hastening the process.

Let us also recognize Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland, for their simply astonishing make-up work: the best, most persuasive and thoroughly credible application of old age since Dick Smith made Dustin Hoffman a wizened 121-year-old codger in 1970’s Little Big Man. Coulier and Helland just earned an Academy Award nomination for their efforts — as did Streep — and all three deserve to win.

You’ll note, however, that these are the only two nominations accorded The Iron Lady. That’s appropriate, because it’s a deeply flawed film: poorly balanced between superficially rendered history and a compassionate, perceptive parable about the struggle to greet old age with dignity. Either half would make a great movie; perhaps, one day, somebody else will make both.

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