Monday, March 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Iron Lady

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Genre: biopic
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

The Iron Lady was one of the most talked about movies this season, not least because Meryl Streep won her third best actress Oscar by channeling former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Making a movie about one of the most controversial, divisive and fascinating political figures in the post-war era is no easy feat. Little known English director Phyllida Lloyd, whose only other credit is musical extravaganza Mamma Mia! in 2008, takes on the challenge but finds herself out of her depth. Lloyd struggles to tell a coherent story without getting lost in the many ups and downs, successes and failings of a woman who began as a grocer’s daughter and went on to serve three consecutive terms as the first and only female prime minister in British history.

The Iron Lady by Phyllida Lloyd

Thatcher was, and still is, a deeply polarizing figure in Britain. You either love her or loathe her, although a vast majority fall into the second category. The Soviets might have come up with the nickname “Iron Lady,” but back home she is better known as “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for her far-right social and fiscal policies. Thatcherism, as it is called, would make the austerity measures in Greece look like a walk in the park. Her ruthless attacks on the labor unions (which led to the miners’ strike in 1984), her indiscriminate privatizations of public services from transport to utilities, and her infamous and hugely unpopular poll tax (which precipitated the Poll Tax Riots in 1990) all contributed to her political downfall. But Lloyd glosses over these and other critical moments of her premiership and stitches together a 102-minute movie that amounts to no more than a collage of flashbacks and raw footage. The biggest flaw of The Iron Lady is that it fails to take a stance or even form an opinion on Thatcher's legacy. In doing so, Lloyd abdicates her duty as a film-maker and leaves the audience feeling shortchanged.

Some of Thatcher's staunch critics

The movie instead focuses on two things: Thatcher’s past battles as the lone woman warrior in the male gladiators’ world of British politics, and her current battle again dementia. They are part of Lloyd's deliberate attempt to show the human side of a woman seemingly devoid of feelings and emotions. In that sense perhaps the director does have a stance: the public should be more sympathetic toward a former leader who has given up so much to serve her country and who is about to die a lonely, demented widow. Nevertheless, most people in Britain will find it difficult to have sympathy for someone who had shown none during her 11-year reign. 

Thatcherism all the way

The Iron Lady is good entertainment and you should watch it, if nothing else, just to experience Meryl Streep's acting prowess. A lot of ink has already been spilled over Streep’s uncanny portrayal of the protagonist. But she is Meryl Streep after all and her presence is so big that it often over-shadows the movie itself. I also find an American actress playing an English icon distracting, just as I did when watching Anthony Hopkins play American President Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's biopic in 1995. The Iron Lady is so much about Streep trying to get the accent and the mannerism right that it, when combined with a flawed screenplay, tips over into mere impersonation and caricature. It goes to show that even a flawless performance delivered by a Hollywood deity can't make up for a director who doesn't do her job.

14 comments:

  1. Meryl was wonderful.

    Don

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  2. I've lost interest in watching it after reading your review...

    Lily

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  3. Lily,

    I read my review again and I was indeed too harsh. So I added a sentence to the last paragraph, "The Iron Lady is good entertainment and you should watch it, if nothing else, just to experience Meryl Streep's acting prowess." But perhaps the damage is already done?!

    Jason

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  4. Not really, after reading this, I should change my mind then......hahahaha!!!

    Lily

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  5. I read it. Don't worry, Jason, you exhibited your generosity by giving it three stars :)

    Masa

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  6. Jason,

    You sound like everyone else I know who has seen this movie. I totally disagree with all of you. I thought it was a smart take on a life that may otherwise have been overcrowded with too many relavant moments...I mean where do u start with a life like hers? Filming it from how Thatcher may be perceiving her life through her dementia was a great way to go...and even the flashbacks where u dont know whether it's the dementia setting in or that really her close advisors were smarmy creeps - was rather clever. I thought the neutrality of the director was fine - film makers are not here to judge but to observe...whoever said they were meant to take sides...

    Tracey

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  7. Tracey,

    Ha, a hundred people can't be wrong, right? Anyway, let me have a think and try to come up with an intelligent response. :-)

    Jason

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  8. I haven't seen it yet. Maybe I should.

    Masa

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  9. Hi Jason,

    I don't quite agree with you, yet I cannot disagree. I won't discuss Meryl Streep's perfect performance (who would?). After watching the movie, my only thought was "Well, at least I learnt some stuffs". I think it could have been a good film OR a good documentary, if it were not for the film maker's hesitation to choose between the two genre.

    This "Iron Lady" concept made me think of a French song, Miss Maggie, by Renaud, a French singer who had his fame. I didn't know he had done an English version but found it on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ama9LTSaZ6o&feature=related). His strong French accent remains though.

    Here are some lines of his subtle ode to women:

    The atom bomb was never made
    By a human female brain
    And no female hand has slayed
    Those U.S. peoples of the plain
    Palestinians or Armenians
    Bear their witness from the grave
    That a genocide is masculine
    Like a SS or a Green Beret
    In this bloody mass of men, each assassin is a brother
    There's no woman to rival them except, of course, Madame Thatcher


    Marie

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  10. Jason,

    Your comments took me totally by surprise, perhaps because all along I was expecting it to be more of a documentary of a powerful leader rather than a film (especially one for "entertainment") per se. And I've heard nothing but praise so far from the general populace (though you know I am the last one to swallow what everyone says).

    I've always known her to be a controversial character, but never have I heard the title "milk snatcher" nor how mean she was (from the ode cited by Marie above). Still, one have to accept, likeable or not, like Hitler and Stalin (in their own realms), she was powerful and she will remain a stature in British history. But then again, my knowledge of English history is less than mediocre, and that's an overstatement already. Maybe I should read up on her more before watching the film.

    I suppose I was more interested in the historical facet and your commentary pierced the film from a production angle (no offence). From your perspective, I have to say your comments were very penetrating. I'll manage my expectations before watching it and if I come up with any further comments afterwards, I'll let you know.

    I'm afraid these are only my impromptu waffling again after chasing up on your articles (amidst my work and having to nurse my fractured bone, rendering me practically immobile). Do keep these coming if only to brighten up your readers' lives !

    Love,
    Christine

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  11. I've heard mixed reviews about this film, but still want to see it just for Meryl Streep's performance.

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  12. I haven't seen this movie yet but I have read some mixed reviews on it. A co-worker at DISH told me that he watched it and he didn't really like it but I already ordered it on Blockbuster @Home and got it in the mail yesterday. I still plan on watching it, the previews look good and I love Meryl Streep. So I’ll have to see for myself.

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  13. Great movie. It shows what a person with real character is. Keep the movie handy and watch it many times. Each time you will find a point of interest that you missed in the previous viewing. Need to find somebody like her and Reagan these days to help deal with the very difficult times.

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