Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Insert obvious joke about image being aligned to the right.To give a fair review of Phyllida Lloyd’s Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady is a difficult task for any critic, as the film’s appeal relies primarily on the inevitable controversy caused by documenting the life of one of recent history’s most divisive politicians.

With this in mind, I’ll make it clear that, as a Labour supporter, I find the glorified portrayal of whom I consider to be a thoroughly detestable politician to be rather vile. Watching Thatcher’s rise to power encapsulated in a typical filmic “unlikely hero struggling against adversity to do what’s right” narrative made me want to boo or punch someone, my preferred victim being the actress who plays a young Maggie in a particularly sickening series of "romantic" scenes in which she falls in love with future husband Denis. I’m sure Alexandra Roach is a pleasant, attractive person, but with that haircut and this sentiment… urgh (Meryl Streep can survive my mad rage, more on her later).

Then again, if I were a Tory voter, I’d probably find the portrayal of an elderly woman being driven mad by hallucinations of her dead husband while said woman is still alive in real life to be somewhat lacking in taste. In fact, even left wing Kieron feels somewhat uneasy with that side of the film.

Politics aside, is the film any good?

Short answer: no.

Long answer:


Let’s look at the positive side first. Meryl Streep gives an excellent performance as the eponymous Iron Lady, perfectly bringing to life the powerful presence and physical characteristics of the ambitious politician in both her political life and her interactions with Denis, as well as her fragility in her old age. Streep deserves to be at least recognised with award nominations and perhaps even wins, and that’s not just because I can’t think of too many recent female-led films (though Tilda Swinton and Michelle Williams also deserve high praise this year).

The rest of the cast includes more great performances from ever-lovable-even-as-the-dead-racist-husband-of-the-woman-who-ruined-Britain Jim Broadbent, rising star Olivia Colman, Anthony Head and Richard E. Grant. Yes, the cast is by far the best element of the film.

The major problem with The Iron Lady as a piece of narrative cinema is that it seems unsure of its focus. Is it a psychological study of an elderly mind falling apart? A feminist film? A political drama? A slapstick sci-fi comedy? Lloyd tries to make it into all of these (well, most of them) and ultimately fails to make anything with any depth. The film speeds through moments in Thatcher’s career like a nonchalant teenager flicking through his mate’s new Facebook album before turning back to Call of Duty, reducing important figures like Michael Heseltine to mere cameos – a fact made more unfortunate by the fact that this is the role expertly filled by Richard E. Grant, an actor I’m always happy to see more of. I'll admit to not being an expert on Heseltine, but with his minute or two of screen time, Grant sinisterly inhabits the role in a way so as to leave me expecting a scene in which Maggie interrupts him eating a baby or conjuring up a demon. Sadly, nothing this exciting ever happens. In fact, not much of any meaningful content happens, with events like the miners' strike, undoubtedly one of the most well-known points in Thatcher's career, limited to passing mentions and short newsreel clips. Cabinet minister Airey Neave is blown up and then instantly forgotten about, as are his attackers the IRA. As Mark Kermode sharply put it, this shallow narrative has "all the politics you’d expect from the director of Mamma Mia!".

Meanwhile, the film begins what promises to be a solid exploration of the troubles our anti-heroine faces due to being a woman, shunned out of a room of male politicians to be “with the ladies” after she has posed a threat to their masculine power, with the camerawork highlighting the differences between their dull black suits and her strikingly bright clothing. But this too, even with the payoff of Thatcher’s victory against the patriarchal sexism, never seems as well developed as it could be.

The portrait of the older Thatcher, with her dementia apparent through her hallucinations of Denis and her forgetfulness in interaction with daughter Carol (Colman), is effectively done and may even provoke a strong emotional reaction amongst those audience members who aren’t biased against the character, though, controversial subject aside, is nothing unseen before.

In general, however, The Iron Lady showcases various aspects of Thatcher’s life in a manner which doesn’t give any depth or detail to anything and is lacking in originality or character. There’s even a laughably familiar King’s Speech-lite training montage, as a voice trainer helps Thatcher prepare to run for party leader. I’m not saying that all of these elements can’t be combined effectively – The Aviator springs to mind as a biopic that combines a detailed overview of a career with a complex psychological study, I’ve heard that Oliver Stone’s Nixon is also good in this respect (and shall add it to my “films to see” list) – but the narrative flow of The Iron Lady is shallow and bland.

What could fix this? A longer running time, maybe – there’s more to be explored in her struggle to become Prime Minister and in her relationships with the likes of Howe and Heseltine (more Richard E, Grant!). A focus on one particular period of her life rather than a wide ranging, overly ambitious biopic perhaps could have worked, as it did for The Queen.

Nevertheless, as I said at the start, The Iron Lady’s appeal relies on its controversy. Despite its talented cast, it certainly doesn’t rely on its strength as a piece of entertainment.


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