REVIEW: Bad Mummy! The Iron Lady Oversimplifies — and Sucks Up To — Margaret Thatcher

Movieline Score:

Phyllida Lloyd and Meryl Streep work a puny bit of flim-flammery in The Iron Lady: They turn Margaret Thatcher into a folk hero, a woman who, poor lamb, had to make sacrifices in her personal life in exchange for political power. This is a watery, artfully evasive picture, anchored by a stupendous feat of mimicry. Some people call that acting.

In The Iron Lady, Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, and boy, does she play her: It's not just the crafty prosthetics, the careful swooping of the powdery-no-color hair, the meticulously chosen jacket-and-skirt ensembles that conjure the chilly specter of the seemingly indestructible former Prime Minister of Great Britain. Everything Streep does -- her strutting-pigeon walk, the way she purses her lips just so after making a particularly harsh pronouncement in the presence of her cabinet -- suggests many hours' worth of vocal exercises and scholarly dissection of video footage. Streep has obviously studied the hell out of Margaret Thatcher, but that isn't the same as getting to the rotten core of her. The performance is neither sympathetic nor damning -- it's simply meticulous and unblinking, and it reads more as a failure of nerve than as an act of bravery.

Yet Streep's performance doesn't exist inside a bubble, and it's of a piece with the picture's conception of Thatcher as a not-bad lady who actually had some good points, if you squint really hard. The Iron Lady focuses more on Thatcher's personal and interior life, only brushing against her politics. It's as if Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan don't want any of those old nasties -- Thatcher's crackdown on the miners' strike of the mid-1980s, resulting in thousands of lost jobs; the institution of the poll tax; the insidious gutting of the National Health Service, at the hands of the woman who famously proclaimed "There is no society" -- to intrude on their portrait of Thatcher as just a plain old grocer's daughter with deep-rooted class insecurities and the kind of ambition that makes the male species cringe.

Thatcher did, of course, make her male colleagues cringe, but The Iron Lady suggests that they cringed only because she was a threatening female, and not because they found her views politically and morally specious. It's a bit of doublespeak that comes in handy when you're making a picture about all that a woman must give up when she when she craves power and authority in a man's world.

Lloyd, Morgan and Streep are obsessed with those sacrifices, even though they can't prove how authentic they might be in Thatcher's actual brain: The picture opens, and continually returns to, Thatcher's later, post-Prime-Minister years, as she's toddling around at home in her housecoat and chit-chatting with her husband, Denis (played by the nearly always wonderful Jim Broadbent, who continues his track record here). She informs Denis that milk has gone up to 49p a pint -- imagine! And nixes his just-for-fun idea of donning a silk turban with a suit for normal daywear. But it turns out that Denis no longer exists: He has died, and while Margaret accepts it logically, she can't accept it emotionally. When her doctor, during a routine examination, asks her if she's had any hallucinations recently, Streep's Margaret flinches ever so slightly before responding, "No."

So you see, Margaret Thatcher, powerful as she was, was capable of being loved and, get this, actually loving. To a point: The story also flashes back to Thatcher's younger days (as a teenager and young woman, she's played by Alexandra Roach), driving away in her car to her new MP job as her two children, twins, run after the car, crying, "Mummy, don't go!" Still, she puts the pedal to the metal -- bad mummy! But that's what you need to do if you want to run a country.

The mid-period stuff in The Iron Lady focuses on Thatcher's rise to power -- by this time, she's played by Streep, not yet obscured by age makeup, and addressing her fellow MPs in a series of prim, silly hats. When Thatcher loses the hats -- as coached by her colleagues and mentors Gordon Reece (Roger Allam) and Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), the latter of whom would shortly thereafter be killed by an IRA bomb -- she wins the general election. From there, she proceeds to choke off the power of the trade unions, stoke unemployment and institute tax policies designed to goad the poor into pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But you don't really see much of that in The Iron Lady, other than some cursory handwaving at the vague notion of lost jobs and montages made up of old riot footage.

What you do see is Thatcher as channeled by Streep, being a tough old bird of a human being, a woman who, upon her engagement to Denis, announced, "I can't die washing up a teacup!" Margaret Thatcher -- at that point Margaret Roberts -- was destined for greater things, and she got them.

But Lloyd and Morgan -- as well as Streep -- are more fixated on the personal price Thatcher had to pay than they are on the damage she ultimately wrought. The picture reeks of sexist special pleading. The overarching tone is "Just look at what this woman had to overcome!" Lloyd might say in her defense that she wanted to make a personal portrait of Thatcher, not a political one. Clint Eastwood might say the same thing of his recent J. Edgar, which focuses more on J. Edgar Hoover's closeted personal life and unhappiness than on the lives he destroyed in the name of patriotism. But when you're dealing with figures whose decisions and policies have been so destructive, is it even possible to separate the personal from the political? And if it's possible, is it advisable?

The Iron Lady is a handsome-looking picture (the DP is Elliot Davis) with a handsome-looking star. Streep's Thatcher, with those trilling, fruity vowels, that glint of superiority in her eye, is impeccable. But to what end? Streep gives us no real clues into Thatcher's inner life -- not that we necessarily want them. This is an oversimplified portrait disguised as a complex one. Nowhere in the movie is it mentioned, to suggest just one example, that Thatcher referred to those striking miners -- people who were simply trying to make a living and provide for their families -- as "the enemy within." Some of us wonder, still, how Margaret Thatcher can continue to live with herself. Watching Meryl Streep walk around so ably in Thatcher's skin isn't enlightening; it's more like a living nightmare.

 
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Comments

  • bierce says:

    You spend so much time letting us know that you hate Margaret Thatcher and think everyone should hate Margaret Thatcher, so what is it actually that you are reviewing? Court judges recuse themselves due to personal bias, shouldn't movie reviewers decline to review biopics about people they hate with as much passion as you clearly exhibit here?

    • Alex says:

      Agreed -- the movie might not have been very good, but this is clearly not a review of the movie, but rather a chance for Stephanie -- whose work I usually like -- to vent about how awful it is that Maggie Thatcher got portrayed on screen at all.

  • Chris says:

    @Bierce

    Yet another tone-deaf reader. Your response reminds me of several I saw regarding negative reviews of J. Edgar. Did you actually read the review? Zacharek makes her points very clearly about why the movie fails.

  • Nathaniel says:

    The usually reliable and always insightful Zacharek's review seems more fair than Bierce makes it out to be (yes, most critics have political views, like most everyone, and more often than not they're of the leftish variety). The notion that you can't step out of objectivity when it comes to reviewing a documentary or a film about a famous person while still giving that film a fair and detailed write-up. Heck, Zacharek disproves that above with a review that does both (and remember, she's panned most of Michael Moore's movies despite their heavy philosophical overlap). That said, her solemn embrace of the unions in England is silly. You can be supportive of worker's rights and organized labor and still admit that the unions in the heavily taxed, overly regulated UK of the late 70s and the 80s were something of a menace, routinely shutting down vital parts of the economy. Her support of the poll tax and her friendship with Pinochet are far more incriminating.

  • dukeroberts says:

    So, as an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, I would like this movie? Thanks for letting me know that you hate her and disliked the movie. My main concern was whether or not it would be a liberal hatchet job on the Conservative icon.

  • Morgo says:

    The summarising paragraph makes it pretty clear that the reviewer doesn't want to see a sympathetic biopic of Thatcher! Haven't seen the movie, much less likely to hurry in after this review.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Pauline Kael, in reviewing Streep in "Silkwood", characterised her as a scrupulous and fastidious mimic without any real animus. It's a bit sad that the same criticism still applies, this many years later; there have been moments in the last decade when I thought she was really starting to crack open ("Adaptation" for one).

    • Bored says:

      Pauline Kael is not the definitive commentator on Streep. Read Molly Haskell's essay called 'In Her Prime' for an incisive account of Streep's ouvre. It's not all pro Streep, but not anti in any way either. Like the best critics (unlike this Pauline Kael android/disciple/hack) Haskell's work comes in from totally unexpected angles.You may not like Streep any more or less than you do now, but you will see her process and approach an entirely new light.

  • Bored says:

    This reviewer is a huge fan of Pauline Kael and a copycat in many ways. She hstes Meryl Streep just like her, loves the highly overrated Angelina Jolie just like Kael, picks on Woody Allen films for no good reason jut like Kael. Get a life Zacharek... and maybe your own style of reviewing while you are at it! Your reviews are so self-important and trades on hyperbole rather than subtlety for effect.. look at AO Scott, Molly Haskell and the fabulous, fabulous Manohla Dargis if you want objective, concise, thought-provoking reviews.

    I'm sure the movie isn't worth much... the film comes from the director of Mama Mia for goodness sake! But as usual Zacharek rips into something because she doesn't share the personal point of view of the film and recycles the same old anti-Streep platitudes we've heard from her before.

  • Charles says:

    Keep in mind that Stephanie doesn't always dislike Streep's acting. She goes back and forth, panning Streep in "Doubt" and then lavishly praising her in "Julie & Julia." In general, I think she prefers Streep in lighter, comedic roles.

  • [...] deliver her its Golden Bear Lifetime Achievement Award and critic Thelma Adams urging the film's ideological detractors to look past Margaret Thatcher's work and respect performance and character -- much the way Streep [...]

  • Dana says:

    What troubles me about this review is how it displays Zacharek's lack of knowledge around the craft of acting. To blame Meryl Streep for flaws in the screenplay and directorial decisions is unfair. The film has some major flaws: the ideological underpinnings of a biopic of this sort are suspect. The lack of any analysis as to the consequences of Thatcher's policies on the people of England manages to whitewash a highly controversial reign as prime minister (and as the film demonstrates Thatcher in fact treated her sojourn in office as a reign). The portrayal of a woman who relied upon her mind for her lifetime now stricken with Alzheimer's resembles that awful Hollywood dreck of romanticizing dementia (e.g. The Notebook, or Away from Her). Yet these issues are not the fault of Ms. Streep or her performance. The performance in this rendering is taken as that of an automaton going about its business with no feeling; however, Streep is able to imbue tiny moments with major emotional feeling. As the older Thatcher, Streep walks into a room befuddled and taps a chair unsure of what her next step should be. That is serious acting, with no artifice or mimicry. I am not sure if Zacharek had turned off by that point in the film because she had already decided to loathe every aspect of the film because of its subject matter, but it is these tiny moments when gestures tell us so much that is the hallmark of great acting--and there is no mimicry there. Streep has always been known as an actress of intellect, unsurpassed even by greats like Tilda Swinton or Judi Dench, but Streep's meticulous attempt at verisimilitude is needed for an audience to buy this performance of a figure for whom so much archival video footage exists. Without that chameleon-like ability, we would not be fooled into paying attention to those quiet moments of devastating pathos that Streep can evoke with one movement. Shame on the usually-astute Zacharek for missing this.

  • Getchell says:

    Great, great review. Oh, just a bullseye of a review.

  • G Clements says:

    If they made a good movie about Reagan your review would sound just the same. You are simply a closed minded Hollywood leftist idiot. Just review the movie. Don't feed us your political crap.

  • Any film about Thatcher should, I think, direct you to looking at the sad state of a public that would vote someone so sick into power. Like Reagan, she had enough in her to appear phallic, to a public that wanted to let the suffering know they were guilty for being so vulnerable and needy. In my own judgment, that she accepted to play this role in this fashion, counts against Streep. For her, I think, story done.

  • JTTRGV says:

    Get over yourself already. You are a film critic, paid only to comment on other people's achievements.

    Margaret Thatcher led a nation during some of the most challenging times of the last century. What the hell have you done?

  • HurrDurrDurr says:

    @looool
    Politics is a sore subject, that could go either way. Do you think ONE person did that? No, it was probably a couple. That's just as stupid as blaming the News Channel President for having bad stories for a while, it's not necessarily their and solely their fault. It could be the fault of other people on the team/government/etc. I'd say more, but I can see the flame war that could be started by that.

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