9 January 2012


This time last year, The King's Speech opened up the year in style. It lingered in the memory long enough to make my top 25 for 2011, and more notably, it went on to load Colin Firth's mantelpiece with plaudits, during the awards season. It was a far better film than this hanger-on, The Iron Lady, which also exploits that apparent fascination that Americans have with British history.

As per the film's shockingly uncanny poster, Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, in this slightly tenuous biopic of the much derided, and yet longest-serving British Prime Minister. Aged up, we first meet Streep's Maggie in her dotage, grieving her late husband, Denis, by conversing with his ghost and dreaming about past glories. It is from this present-day anchorage that we see the younger Margaret ascend to the top of the government with firmly held ideals about restoring the greatness of Britain, even if it means being unpopular with the electorate.

It's far too easy to judge the film on whether or not I agree with its stance on Thatcher, whose humanity, we are led to conclude, made her at least "not bad". We're constantly told, in the film itself and in reality, that she is one of the most divisive figures in British political history. Except where The Iron Lady's character portrayal actually impedes the coherence and effectiveness of the film, there's no point chatting about whether or not I agree with its standpoint on Thatcher.

According to director Phyllida Lloyd, asking if she agreed with Thatcher's policies is tantamount to asking if you agree with King Lear's ideology, so I suspected in advance that the representation would be a big problem. Having now seen the film, I think that was very telling indeed. Streep's astonishing performance, praised by all and sundry as an act of unnerving mimicry, is still just a character. If Lloyd views Thatcher as Lear, she views her as a character, and not a real figure. She's also written as such, by screenwriter Abi Morgan, trying to find the good in a less-than-stellar public image.

The result is an act of gross simplification- as it turns out, Margaret just wasn't liked in her time because of nasty, bullying, sexist men. This conception protests marginalisation, while also dismissing the complaints of the troubled workforce that Thatcher devastated, by relegating protesters to gruesome montages and background noise. The film is far clumsier in its attempts to align us with the protagonist's point-of-view than Lynne Ramsey's We Need To Talk About Kevin, resorting to Peep Show-style shots of Thatcher's view, which feels more like forced perspective, and never approaches any kind of meaningful empathy.

Elsewhere, the film also grants us an early contender for this year's Best Unintentional LOL, when Jim Broadbent's Denis emerges from the debris of the Brighton hotel bombing, in slow motion. Resplendent in pyjamas, wailing as he clutches his exploded shoes, it would take a Herculean effort to keep a straight face, and I failed to prevent myself from howling. I like Broadbent just as much as everyone else, but he's underused here, and when he is present, his haunting of Margaret is actually more sinister than sweet. He even made me jump once or twice, with his sudden appearances to his now-enfeebled wife- at least his sporadic appearances keep the proceedings lively, whether for levity or Black Swan-style hallucinogenic melodrama.

It's one of the last projects OK'd by the now defunct UK Film Council, and so it's disappointing that it is rife with whimpering endorsements of a utilitarian Conservative government, that even pays lip service to that noted "smoothie", David Cameron. It's plenty British, but with one eye firmly on international marketability- at one point, Thatcher, who Americans might best remember as an acolyte of President Reagan, compares the Falklands war to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, with the apparent goal of squaring a pointless and expensive exercise of jingoism for audiences who don't know any better. This cross-eyed perspective sees right past Thatcher's other aberrations, like her condemnation of Nelson Mandela, and her homophobic Section 28 legislation.

Meryl Streep is not enough to elevate The Iron Lady all by herself, because the film is so non-judgemental, it borders on weightlessness. There is no nuance or perspective about the film to which her performance is attached, and so its insight would be no less profound if she was played by that Spitting Image puppet. It's not a whitewash, and nor is it purely hagiographic, but it's unerringly non-judgemental, and very definitely a post-King's Speech conception of a much more complicated figure. It's interesting to represent a divisive figure in a sympathetic light, but unfortunately, this film is far more challenged than it is challenging.

The Iron Lady is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Iron Lady, why not share your comments below? It's not Maggie's worst film- she was still in For Your Eyes Only...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Jeremy Dylan said...