Friday, 13 January 2012

Movie #2 The Iron Lady

Before I begin this review, I should come clean and, like a good politician, register my interests and be clear from the outset on how Thatcher is viewed chez Slut.

So: background. I grew up in the coal-mining region of South Yorkshire in the 1980s which was lain waste by Thatcher's divisive Conservative government; mines were closed, striking miners were brutalized by a police force that was a damn sight less soft-touch than in the 2011 riots. Some of my earliest memories are of being taken to support rallies by my resolutely leftie parents. Many of the villages and communities local to me were devastated by the closure of the mines, and still haven't recovered economically from the loss of the single most significant employer, nor have they recovered psychically from the brutal nature of the closures. So to me Margaret Thatcher is a kind of folk devil - she's The Milk Snatcher (the opening scene sneakily alludes to this moniker, derived from her cutting of the free milk ration for school children), she's 'Thatcher', never 'Margaret', though sometimes 'Maggie' - as in: "MAGGIE MAGGIE MAGGIE! OUT OUT OUT!"

In theory, director Phyllida Lloyd has a tightrope to walk; half of the country is still besotted with her, the other half despises her. In practise, the tightrope is avoided all together, framing the biopic through an ageing Thatcher's fractured and chronologically jumbled recollections of key moments in her career, with no analysis or judgement either way. It's almost like a Greatest Hits LP on 'shuffle' mode - we get the Falklands, the miners' strike, the IRA bombs and her ultimate defenestration among other events, but it is neither hagiography nor excoriation - and to be a film of substance I think it really had to be one or the other. I suppose there could be an argument that this is a film about dementia, or even an examination of how the most influential masters of men become confused and lonely in their dotage - but for me there's not enough in the film to support either of these notions.

And, despite the Maggie-on-45 remix gimmick, it's very much a trad biopic. There's so little invention or verve from the direction (and say whatever else you want about Mamma Mia, her previous film, it was certainly inventive) that story actually becomes boring. Even if you don't bring any personal political baggage to the screening you still end up with: 'here's a woman, here are some things she did, so what?'.

Really, then, this is all about Meryl Streep's uncanny impersonation of Thatcher. It really is quite an extraordinary piece of impressionism (I'm not 100% sure it can be called 'acting'; that's not to say it's not a very striking piece of work). If she doesn't get at least an Oscar nomination I will cook and eat my bicycle tyres. However, as with Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, I'm never entirely happy with the praise dished out following performances of this kind. That's not to say I don't admire the craft involved - I do - but it's a bit like that episode of The Simpsons where Bart wins the science fair by dressing a hamster as a pilot and putting it in a miniature aeroplane - it's certainly diverting, but kind of misses the point of the enterprise. If that sounds churlish, I don't mean to be; Streep does do a quite brilliant job in recreating Thatcher for us.

I also want to give an extra little mention to Olivia Colman who holds her own against Streep as daughter Carol Thatcher. Anthony Head is also well-balanced as Geoffrey Howe, and certainly better than both Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher (a rare phoned-in performance) and Richard E. Grant whose Michael Heseltine impression is hammily ludicrous.

By way of contrast, I really should mention the impressive BBC4 mini-series The Long Walk to Finchley, which starred Andrea Riseborough as a young Margaret Thatcher on her road into politics. This was more clever by far than The Iron Lady, and Riseborough displayed a similar degree of verisimilitude. The genius of ...Finchley was in its acknowledgement of Thatcher's later misdeeds, and daring an audience that it assumed to be sceptical to sympathise with the protagonist; The Iron Lady, by contrast, takes your sympathy for granted.

In short, we end up with a notable performance in a duffer of a film (and a politically suspect one to boot). The arithmetic of my final score is 3/10 for the general film-making, minus one for the politics and plus two for Meryl Streep. Giving The Iron Lady:



  1. Nice review multiplex whore. I'm not sure whether I want to watch it now though...

    MJ Blige x

  2. Cheers MJ *cough*. My advice, give it a miss.

    By the way, it's Slut rather than Whore - I don't get paid for this...

  3. Fair play. Found this site via the Lamb forum for this movie and you've managed to temper your anger a lot better than I did. Plus, you used hagiography and excoriation in the same sentence, which puts you up a level or two.

  4. Hmm, yes. I tried my best to be fair with this; Thatcher is still a dirty word in my house. I enjoyed your review much more than the film!