Monday, April 8, 2013

Stubs – The Iron Lady

With today's announcement that Margaret Thatcher had died, Trophy Unlocked decided to post a review for The Iron Lady, the 2012 Bio pic.

The Iron Lady (2012) Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant, Iain Glenn, Olivia Coleman  Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Produced by Damian Jones. Screenplay by Abi Morgan. Run Time: 105 minutes. U.K.  Color.  Biography

Biography is one genre that seems to get abused by filmmakers. Biographies can be made that make heroes where one didn’t exist. Some gloss over defects in their main characters and make them seem more upright than they are in real life. In the case with The Iron Lady, it appears that someone had an axe to grind.

I am not a big fan of Margaret Thatcher and I’m not here to defend her, but in The Iron Lady, too much time is spent on Thatcher as an older woman in ill health. While the real Thatcher is, as of this writing, alive and in failing health, this is not what she will be best remembered for. The first Prime Minister in the history of Great Britain, she ruled for 11 years from 1979 to 1990. This is her legacy and it is this period of her life that the film seems to gloss over.

Told through a series of disjointed flashbacks, Thatcher (Meryl Streep) spends most of the film talking to her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). There was obviously a great love between them. We’re shown that Denis knew what he was getting himself into when he proposes to the young Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach).

Thatcher’s is a rag to riches story. The daughter of a politically active grocer, Alfred Roberts (Iain Glenn), Margaret attends Oxford and then spends her life in public service, a fancy word for politics. She runs for office and fails, but meets Denis, who marries her and they have twins, a boy, Mark, and a daughter, Carol. She is depicted, incorrectly, as the only woman in Parliament when she first joins in 1959 as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Finchley. She would represent Finchley until 1992.

Thatcher rose through the ranks in Parliament as the Conservative from Finchley.
By 1975, she would decide to run for Head of the Conservative Party, a post she didn’t expect to win, but which supporters felt she would be good for. The film doesn’t really explain who her supporters are, but with some coaching and makeup, she becomes a viable candidate. In 1979, with the Conservatives winning control of Parliament, Thatcher would become PM.

To me, this rise would have been an interesting facet of her life to cover. But instead, this part is mostly glossed over. Being a mother and a politician is somewhat unique, but all we learn is that Margaret wasn’t really a great mother, as her interaction with her children is shown as her driving away from them, ignoring their pleas for her to stay, as she ventures to London to begin her service.

Because the film spends so much time with Margaret as a doddering Alzheimer patient, what would have been an interesting story is just background. You keep waiting for the film to depict her legacy moment, but that moment is never pointed out. Her rule is depicted as quick hits on the major events, but there is no background given to explain anything. Explanation and depth would get in the way of Margaret carrying on a conversation with the departed Denis.

A woman who was once considered an Iron Lady, Margaret is depicted as weak and doddering throughout the majority of the film. For someone who was obviously vital, if not universally loved, this in an unfair portrait of her. We all get old if we’re lucky, but few biographies concentrate on it as much as The Iron Lady does.

This was not a big success at the U.S. box office, grossing a little over $30 million. Biographies about foreign leaders are a hard sell. The King’s Speech, which came out the year before, was an exception, but it was an exceptionally well told film. The only reason you may have ever heard of this film is that Meryl Streep was nominated for and received the Academy Award for Best Actress. While the film isn’t very good, Streep is. She seems to really disappear into the role. Part of her emergence can be attributed to make up, but a lot of it has to do with Streep’s talent as an actress. Every year, it seems, Streep gets nominated for some award for some role, no matter how big or small the part may be. This is an example of a performance rising above the material and standing out when the film itself is lacking.

Meryl Streep was given accolades for her performance as Thatcher.
The other acting is good, too. Jim Broadbent never seems to give a bad performance. And again, you can’t blame the actor for the script and for the film. Denis would have to be a strong man to understand his wife’s ambitions and to stand behind her. We get a hint of marital unhappiness, but the couple manages, off screen, to make amends. His was a character that deserved more examination than an apparition of a man who had been dead for eight years.

And Alexandra Roach shows the spark that made the not so pretty shopkeeper’s daughter want to better herself and to serve her nation. There had to be something to her to attract young Denis (Harry Lloyd), whom must have seen her potential and understood it. The young Thatcher, who would go on to break barriers, who had to balance being a wife, mother and politician would have made for an interesting biography on its own. In The Iron Lady, this developmental part of her life is only given a cursory look.

Alexandra Roach as young Margaret Thatcher.
The film fails to tell what would appear to be a really good story. Having only seen bits and pieces of Thatcher on the TV news, I didn’t really know much about her, but the film glosses over the meat of her life to concentrate on the bones. We never see her really campaign or lead. There are the major events during her term as PM: recession, war, etc., but none of them are ever really gone into with any great depth. The battle for the Falkland Islands receives the most screen time of any the issues she must have dealt with, but is only sketchy at best. 

Since we know Britain wins in the end, perhaps the filmmakers don’t feel they have to dig any deeper. But it’s sort of like knowing the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the U.S. wins World War II. It’s that middle bit that deserves investigation.

Also, Thatcher was never portrayed as a popular leader, but somehow managed to hold power for 11 years. What was her secret? I’m sure it wasn’t correcting the report writing of her deputy, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), which is one of the few interactions we see of Thatcher and her Secretaries. She must have been a master politician to have kept herself and her party in power through all the downtimes. Too bad there is very little of that examined in the film.

Thatcher dealing with her Secretaries among them Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head).
There is a really good story that could be told about Margaret Thatcher, like her or not. It’s too bad that The Iron Lady fails to really tell it.

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