The Iron Lady | Phyllida Lloyd | 2011
The biopic is a subgenre that has been present since the inception of cinema. And as with any subgenre, we have had our share of great ones like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Orson Welle’s pseudo-biopic Citizen Kane, or a more recent one like American Splendor. But just as well, the biopic can be a bad thing, particularly when used by studios, actors, and directors as nothing more than a vehicle to drive them to Oscar glory. When it was announced that a biopic of Margaret Thatcher, the first an only female British Prime Minister, as well as one of the most controversial political figures of the 20th century, was being made and would star none other than Meryl Streep it was obvious that this was only an excuse for her to once again try for her long-desired third Oscar. And sure enough, with Harvey Weinstein behind the campaign she won her Oscar, beating the more deserving work of presumed front-runner Viola Davis in The Help, as well as the daring work of young ingénue Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But what should have been a cause for celebration, instead once again raised questions about the credibility of the Academy, because while Streep does indeed turn in a great performance, the film is just another by-the-numbers biopic that checks off all the expected clichés that it actually borders on parody.
The Iron Lady, surprisingly, mostly focuses on older Thatcher, as she is confined to her home and is on the early stages of dementia, as she constantly imagines her dead husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent). From then on, as she sees news reports from the modern world, or as when she listens to guests in her home, she reflects on the events that marked her life, whether it was listening to her father give a passionate speech, her first, but failed attempt at becoming a member of parliament, Dennis’s marriage proposal, or the events that marked her time as Prime Minister.As you can see from that description, the film uses the same old flashback structure that this type of films, and that hurts it from the get-go. It’s clear that that writer Abbie Morgan had no idea how to approach this in an innovative way and it was nothing more than a paycheck assignment. Yes, we know she was a conservative. Yes, we know she had to fight her way up because she was a woman from a poor background. There is absolutely no need to hit us over the head with it all throughout the film. Just tell us once and move on. Make it apparent through the actions of others, not through terribly written, self-important dialogue.
As bland as the script is, a good director might have saved it from being so ordinary, but alas Phyllida Lloyd is not a good director. Yes, she may be respected in the theater community having directed “Mamma Mia!,” one of its biggest hits, and consequently the film adaptation of said musical, which is the third biggest live-action musical of all time. But as the Mamma Mia! film proved, she just doesn’t know how to handle film. In The Iron Lady she tries to be flashy to avoid falling into the biopic traps, but she doesn’t know that all the tricks she used (the flashback structure, the quick zoom-ins, the dementia, the hyperactive camera, and the dutch angles) have already been used many times before, and therefore her film still didn’t stand out from others of its kind. Add to that downright ugly cinematography, and you have the perfect recipe for a bad movie.
But not everything is a lost cause. The makeup is fantastic and rightfully earned that Oscar, and the costumes are nice. Thomas Newman’s score is nice, although I’m curious to hear what Clint Mansell cooked up for it since they made such a big deal about it, only to have Harvey Weinstein come in and deem not Oscar-friendly enough.
And, of course, there is Meryl. Had this performance been in another movie I would have cheered her Oscar win. During the flashbacks she does a perfect impression of Thatcher, but where she really shines is during the parts where she is an older woman. With the help of the makeup she is not just Meryl Streep trying to get another Oscar, but we see her doing what she does best. During these parts we see why she is considered by some to be the greatest actress of all time. She’s got the mannerisms of an older lady down to a tee. It’s an impressive transformation, but I still felt like she was wasting her talent on the role and in this film. I echo all those who say that she needs to work with better directors. Sure, she says that it’s because those big directors are not working with scripts written for someone her age, but if she really wanted it she could go out, find a good script and take it to an interesting director. She’s worked with Spike Jonze, right? Why not look for a script that would fit them both and take it to him? Now that she’s won her third Oscar will she stop caring or will she try to meet or surpass Katherine Hepburn’s record? If she’g going to go for the latter she needs to work with better people and surpass her Sophie’s Choice performance. Even if she fails to do so, watching her do that will be a great sight.
In the end, all The Iron Lady has going for it is Streep’s performance. But that performance is so great that it makes all the bad things about it stand out more. It could have been an interesting biopic, but since it was tailor-made for Oscar, it was a neutered affair. I believe that had it not been for Harvey Weintein, the film would not have gotten as far as it did. But alas, what we have is yet another entry to the “forgettable biopic” cannon.