Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent
Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd
Richard E. Grant, Anthony Head, Nicholas Farrell
The role of biopics in the extensive firmament of movie genres is something that's more debatable now than ever. In the time of the internet and the wiki-generation, biopics have no more business being guardians of history (were they ever for that matter?) and those that choose to depict the entire lives of their subjects often fail because they become "greatest hits" movies, in which we see filmmakers meticulously recreate entire periods, but rarely say anything "transcendental" about the main character.
Such is the case of The Iron Lady, a film that not only fails to convey the grandiosity (whether that's a compliment or an attack is up to you) of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
As played by Meryl Streep, who gives yet another mesmerizing performance, the film is an impressionistic take on her life. The plot is framed by showing us Thatcher in her old age, facing dementia, as she has flashbacks of the great events in her life.
From being elected as a member of parliament (she's played by Roach as a young woman), all the way to becoming the longest running PM in the twentieth century, we see why Thatcher became such a controversial figure; her extreme conservatism being the center of polarizing views by people in her own country and foreigners.
Biopics now should have something specific to say, whether the figures it portrays are fascists or saints, which is why The Iron Lady's pointlessness can be portrayed as a sign of cowardice by part of the director and screenwriter.
The uneven way in which Thatcher's political actions are presented leaves us with nothing but a series of causes for us to despise the way in which this woman handled her government, with an utmost lack of humanity for anyone other than her family. Her obsession wit her husband Dennis (Broadbent) however, teases by saying maybe she wasn't as independent and assertive as she claimed to be.
The film can't for the life of it decide whether it wants to portray Thatcher as a monster or a flawed human being, we never perceive for example why she thought it so important to take action in the Falklands conflict when her country was facing one of its most serious economic crises. It doesn't help either, that by moving back and forth in time so much we don't ever get a real sense of time, one minute she's sinking Argentinean ships (1982) the next she's resigning as PM (1990).
Adding to that sense of confusion (is the film trying to recreate the effects of dementia for its audience?) then we are shown how the old Thatcher has sudden anxiety attacks missing her husband and going through old home movies. Is Lloyd implying that her dementia invalidates all the evil she did or is she suggesting that the dementia itself is her punishment?
Fortunately for Lloyd, Streep commands the film with a fearlessness better reserved for better movies, disappearing under Thatcher's skin and making it all her own. When the film tries to turn her into a demonic Pygmalion figure at the mercy of campaign managers who want her to win, Streep devours the scenery with a gusto that's almost too pleasurable to watch.
Then she has a blast recreating all the Thatcherisms we've come to know throughout the years, including the high pitched voice and the daring eyebrow lift. Playing her as an older woman, we see how Streep preserves the essence of a woman who now rarely makes public appearances. Her performance isn't only a marvel because of its technical accomplishments but also because of the way in which the glorious actress projects how a character will be once we no longer have access to them.
Early in the film, Thatcher declares "I can not die washing a tea cup", lo and behold, the very last scene shows her doing just that. If Lloyd pretended to elicit snickers, Streep gives one last look at the camera that declares that whether you like Thatcher or not, a human being's dignity must be the one thing they carry to their grave.