By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
In Phyllida Lloyd’s “The Iron Lady,” the great Streep and great makeup doth a prime minister make. It’s gotten to be an old saw, touting Meryl Streep’s thespic brilliance in spite of whatever flaws detract from the film containing her performance. Here, she is probably more Margaret Thatcher than Mrs. Thatcher herself. Aye, it’s a magic trick.
So, even if you’re a film critic who finds the former prime minister’s politics abhorrently opposed to almost everything you believe in, you still can’t help but be drawn into the superbly artistic web of personality Miss Streep weaves. Just be aware that this is more character study than biopic. The stuff of governing is decidedly ancillary to the charisma.
Forcefully denoted in what often feels like an apologia, this daughter of a self-reliant grocer, brought up during WWII, is indeed a tough cookie who feels people should fend for themselves. And, thanks to a camera that moves back and forth through the years with seamless poise, the sympathetic portrait doubles as a touching look at the aging process.
Making it a full course lesson in what can be achieved in but one portrayal, Streep also etches a Machiavellian pastiche on the workings of power. She gets good help. Playing sounding board and conscience to the process of prominence, Jim Broadbent is superb as Denis Thatcher, proving that behind every great woman there is a magnanimous man.
This is where the director takes a daring but ultimately successful chance. She keeps Mr. Thatcher ever-present along the perimeters of his wife’s career. Serving as afflatus, he chides comically, sweetly and acerbically. And then Miss Lloyd ups the ante. That is, she chooses to have him flit in and out of Margaret’s consciousness, even after his death.
The resultant mini-monograph on non-traditional marriage sings a paean to the unselfish give and take required of all relationships, and thus provides a primer on what it takes to make the seemingly impossible impossibly sublime. Unfortunately, the historical events depicted are more in the service of the main characterization than they are of history.
Granted, adding an hour to the film to accommodate the turbulence fore and aft the tumbling of the Berlin wall, plus bunches of parliamentary stuff only the history buff might welcome, would be unworkable. But while a feeling for the times is more or less achieved, a grander effort would be required to make this a film of true historical import.
Almost always ready to the challenge, however, are the costume and set design folk, who here attain with notable aplomb the visual temper, tone and aura of whatever era in Mrs. Thatcher’s political career is being detailed. Actual footage of accompanying cataclysms, usually of terrorist activity, supplies a jarring, startling contrast to the heady ruminations.
All well and good. But the problem nags. There should be more. Here I am at about the 60% mark of the review, where it behooves to tell you how the filmmaker plays Devil’s advocate by taking the prime minister to task for this or that. But, there is very little, if any, of that. Thus somewhere where inspiration resides, Clio, the muse of history, scowls.
Too bad. Biography can be a great tool for historical study, provided its intention, after detailing the life of its subject, is to place said personage in the circumstances that both shaped him and that he or she in turn shaped. Although Miss Lloyd pays lip service to the process, this is more about fame and achievement than the life and times of Thatcher.
Pity, too. Because we sure could use an astute rummaging around in the enmity between the left and right, a force currently deterring much of the world from progressing toward a fruitful destiny. Perchance a look at the version of the enigma as it existed in Thatcher’s day might have shed light on the current permutation. After all, that is how history works.
Case in point, “M*A*S*H” (1970), though set during the Korean War, was really about the Vietnam War. Art and history combined in a grand, comparative muckraking worthy of Mark Twain himself. The film did its part to help end the war. In this case, too much homage and not enough counterpoint prove a disservice, especially to Mrs. Thatcher.
Still, lest we think her a party to lying by omission, Meryl Streep’s smart, multi-layered representation tacitly coaxes one to read between the lines. Therefore, for those so inclined and possessing of the time, the suggestion is to see this for Streep and then, just for good form, get hold of a biography with more mettle to it than “The Iron Lady.”
“The Iron Lady,” rated PG-13, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Phyllida Lloyd and stars Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent and Alexandra Roach. Running time: 105 minutes
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