Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Iron Maiden! Woo!

Wait...this film ISN'T the long awaited documentary of the lives and times of the iconic metal band founded back in 1975? Bummer.

Anyway, Iron Lady is the biopic of Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain's longest-reigning Prime Minister of the twentieth century. The Weinstein Company is obviously hoping that in producing Iron Lady they can repeat recent history in their attempt to portray this controversial British political figure; it was this same company that made the much lauded and Academy Award winning The King's Speech last year. Still, Thatcher presents a much larger challenge than the stuttering monarch did in 2010. While I'm not as up on how that particular nation views it's political figures (does anyone actually have a bad thing to say about King George VI?), I do know that the woman who eventually became known as the "Iron :Lady" was not universally beloved by the people around her, either by the conservatives with whom she worked nor the citizens she led. Another major obstacle would be the woman hired to portray Thatcher. While Meryl Streep is doubtlessly among the best and most talented actresses the world has ever seen, and this film will likely prove to be the fourth movie in the past six years (The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt and Julie & Julia being the previous three) to see her nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, one wonders whether she can harness the humanity of a woman who is hated by half of her homeland.

Practicing her acceptance speech
In her late years, Margaret Thatcher (Streep) is not doing exceptionally well. While the proud woman is far from infirm, she is fussed over by those in charge of keeping her safe, and is haunted by hallucinatory visions of her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who passed away some years ago. Finally bringing herself to get rid of his old things, the elderly Thatcher strolls down memory lane, remembering the path of her life from politician's shopgirl daughter to the only female member of Parliament, to her ambitious and successful bid to become Prime Minister of England, and the peaks and valleys of holding that position through eleven years of strife, economic turbulence and war.

Yes, all the images I could find were of Meryl...
If you're looking for a new King's Speech in this, you might be out of luck, but one thing Iron Lady shares with last year's Oscar winner is the presence of a dominant lead performer. Simply, there is no more perfect actress than Meryl Streep when it comes to this role. The film neither vilifies Thatcher nor unnecessarily praises her, but it DOES celebrate what she was and the difficult road it took to reach her career apex. In carrying this out, Streep can not do just one or two things right to master the part; she must perfect every side to this controversial woman in what is - no surprise here - an emotionally deep, strident character with very real convictions that go along with very real flaws. Her voice is not just some pitch-perfect imitation either; Streep absolutely blew me and most of the audience around me away by melding into this public figure with her absolute essence and spirit radiating not Meryl, but Margaret. While it's easy to focus on Meryl's strengths, Jim Broadbent is a close second in the battle for audience attention. While the flashback scenes tend to keep Denis Thatcher more on the sidelines in lieu of focusing on the film's muse, his appearances as the elderly Thatcher's hallucinatory image are always welcome and often hilarious, sweet and bittersweet all at the same time.

Its a maaaaayan's woooorld!
Unfortunately, once you get outside the idea of Streep being amazing, there's just not a whole lot left to look at. Director Phyllida Lloyd does a decent job of objectively looking at Thatcher's political career and not declaring her politics as right or wrong (though she does show the British peoples' objections to Thatcher's hard-line brand of governing), but often times the film itself feels disjointed, especially in the breaks between modern day and flashbacks. Between that and several rushed scenes, it feels as if a lot of important information was glossed over in portraying Margaret Thatcher as anything more than a female politician, albeit an important one. When your only other major theatrical release to date is the musical Mama Mia, such a serious drama might seem like a huge change of gears, and despite not being a bad film at all, it's obvious the gap was a little too large for Lloyd to cross completely. Another major problem is the lack of compelling secondary characters. While everyone was obviously based on real historical figures, almost none of them are explored beyond talking heads, and only a couple are detailed in any way. Nicholas Farrell and Anthony Head play important supporters in Thatcher's political career, but both are sidelined often and shown in passing, playing no legitimate role in the film.

Arched eyebrows will only gain you so many votes...
While as a film it might not hold the same essence that made The King's Speech such an unmitigated hit, Iron Lady at least has it's own bona fide superstar to raise it above the level of a BBC made for television film. If there's any justice, Streep will win her third Academy Award on February 26'th. Disagree? Sure, Thatcher as a role is potentially less popular with Oscar voters than say, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, but there's a lot that's in Meryl's favor. For one, she's already won major acclaim and awards for playing this part. Secondly, she's a more respected actress than the talented but young Williams, who was nominated last year for the excellent Blue Valentine. Finally, as a perennially-nominated actress who last won an Oscar in 1983 for Sophie's Choice, Streep's due for a win. She's been passed over in better years, and it's "put up or shut up" time for the Academy. If Hollywood wants to insist that Meryl Streep is one of the most talented actresses to grace the silver screen, they need to recognize it now.

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