We weren’t expecting Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, but the outright refusal to engage with political complexities is disappointing.
Okay, so we weren’t expecting Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall. Or Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I. Hell, we weren’t even expecting Oliver Stone’s Nixon. But nothing can quite prepare you for the howling lack of political insight and the suffocating cult of personality that define Meryl Streep’s Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady.
Yes, 'Meryl Streep's', for she is certainly the author here, and one who boldly and unreservedly deploys what appears to be the complete actor’s arsenal (from mumbling madly under latex face masks, to raging with full-bore, Lear-like soliloquies, to dashing out self-satisfied one-liners and pointed political quips), at times doing so, it seems, without any directorial guidance whatsoever. And all in the name of some strangely middlebrow attempt to capture the woman beneath the national legend.
Although if this latter cliché had truly been the goal of The Iron Lady, it might’ve been a more dense and complicated drama. Instead, what director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan have concocted is a kind of psychoanalytical rubric that runs through the movie like the sickly sweet letters in a stick of rock. It reads, ‘Margaret Thatcher loved her husband Denis above everything else, and it is through this love, and this love alone, that her entire life makes sense.’
Thus the film opens with modern day Thatcher (Streep in latex) battling senile dementia and conducting a zany relationship with her wacky yet long-dead husband (Jim Broadbent, channelling Jim Carrey – but not in a good way). She begins, almost immediately, to experience biographical flashbacks in neat chronological order. And thus, by the end of the first day, in between increasingly wearing skits with Denis (Look! He’s wearing a turban!), we’re brought right up to the moment where Thatcher snags a place at Oxford University.
Instead of depicting the aged Thatcher drifting into troubled slumber and allowing the central narrative to unfold undisturbed, it is with something approaching unbridled horror that you realise, no, the entire movie is going to jump axiomatically back and forth between political Maggie and modern Maggie right until the soggy, tear-strewn conclusion.
Which translates as Streep delivering a performance that is admittedly commanding yet fundamentally corrosive (the film could be re-titled Look at Me: By Meryl Streep), while alternating her best, ‘O fool, I shall go mad!’ close-ups with a shockingly cursory tour of 1980s politics.
Miners’ strike? Musical montage. Union wars? Musical montage. Falklands War and sinking of the Belgrano? Two scenes – at the end of which Thatcher is nicely exonerated. Poll Tax riots? Another musical montage.
Again, we weren’t expecting a piece of searing agit prop in the Dziga Vertov mould (this does, after all, come to you from the filmmaker who made Mamma Mia!), but the outright refusal to engage with political complexities is disappointing. While the hagiography is just depressing.
Margaret Thatcher? Vaguely remember her. Lots to explore there.
Ooh! Meryl Streep is good at acting.
Almost hysterically inadequate.