Originally Reviewed – 2/19/2012
Here’s a shocker for you. Meryl Streep is one of the finest American actresses to have ever graced the silver screen. Even in lackluster films, her work shines through the muck. Julie and Julia anyone? At this point in her career, if Streep were in a Volvo commercial, somebody would be handing her a trophy. Celebrated for good reason, she’s one of those performers that can literally do no wrong. Holding the record for most nominations in both the Golden Globes (26) and the Academy Awards (17), Streep is also well recognized in the film industry. Basically, if she’s in a movie, it’s going to get some Oscar buzz. Care to take a guess on what’s going to happen when you take Meryl Streep, put her in some makeup and have her play Margret Thatcher in a British biopic? If you answered “awards pandemonium”, you get five points, two and a half happy faces and a gold star. Luckily for Meryl, The Iron Lady supports her acting chops with some good direction and a well written screenplay that humanizes the controversial Prime Minister while working within the staid biopic genre.
The Iron Lady, directed by famed British theater director Phyllida Lloyd, follows two separate paths. The first one, a standard tracking of Thatcher’s rise to Prime Minister in the sexist world of British politics, follows the usual biopic rhythms. Peppering in live action footage with Streep’s mesmerizing performance, the effect is interesting yet uninspiring. We’ve seen this type of film before with different figures plugged into the roles. The second path, however, is what gives the film a pulse and elevates the experience beyond the rules of the genre. In this path, we see Thatcher in 2008, long removed from her political life and struggling with dementia. Here she converses with her long dead husband, efforts to maintain strained relationships with her grown children and struggles with a life where she no longer has an impact. These scenes do a great job of giving the character depth and feeling, surprising if you know anything about Thatcher’s ultra-conservative public image.
Streep takes this ball and runs with it, filling the screen with her usual brilliance. The Oscar nominated actress disappears into the role, not only nailing the vocal cues of the former Parliament leader, but the emotional cues as well. The real life Thatcher was a Randian figure, a politician who believed everyone should work for their way in life and despised those who took without giving back. In a film adaptation, this one noted character would have been intolerable, but Streep, with the help of screenwriter Abi Morgan, delves deep into the motivations of Thatcher, creating someone we can care for, even if we disagree with her politics. This depth alone makes Streep’s performance one of the finest of the year .
The rest of the cast does a great job of giving the film historical accuracy and genuine color. High marks need to be given to Jim Broadbent who plays Dennis, the now deceased husband of Margaret. The direct result of Thatcher’s dementia, Dennis haunts our lead character with equal parts whimsy and accusation, pulling Margaret between the extremes of comfort and self regret. The result is the main source of tension in a film that desperately needs it. The film also utilizes some interesting shot selection and cinematography, again elevating the experience beyond the standard beats of the biopic genre. The film also ends symbolically, giving the movie a very nice bookend that rewards viewers paying close enough attention to get the reference.
As I said in my Week With Marilyn review, biopics are almost a direct road to Oscar nominations and can be seen as an easy one. Problem is, you still need to play those parts well in order to get on the highway. Meryl Streep again reminds us why she is a national treasure in The Iron Lady, filling the screen with a pitch perfect portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in both style and personality. Unlike the aforementioned Michelle Williams film, we leave the movie knowing a bit more about the central character than we did arriving. That in itself, is worth the price of admission. Carefully crafted and thoughtfully directed, The Iron Lady surpasses expectations by giving viewers a candid and well balanced look into the life of a controversial political figure. And no, it doesn’t hurt that it stars one of the finest American actress to have ever graced the silver screen.
Score – 80%