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Review: 'The Iron Lady' Is A Shabby & Tin-Eared Standard-Issue Biopic

by James Rocchi
December 26, 2011 11:22 AM
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The Iron Lady

Starring two time winner and multiple-Oscar nominee Meryl Streep as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, "The Iron Lady" will be watched across broad ideological divides; Thatcher was (and is) an icon to the Right, while she was (and is) demonized and disparaged by the Left. The film's also being watched along polarized axes in Hollywood, as well, where awards-season gurus hover to see if Thatcher will get Streep her 17th Oscar nomination or even her 3rd win, and more innocent consumers merely wonder if Streep and the script will provide a quality night out at the movies. And yet these polarized groups will surely all come together to recognize that "The Iron Lady" is the comedy of the year. It's not meant to be.

Every moment in "The Iron Lady" is tone-deaf -- Streep is trapped in a death-mask of make-up and arch imitation; the film is shackled into the twin manacles of a hasty, hackneyed structure coupled with a laughable framing device. Late in life, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanders through the memory palace of her every achievement, the kind of montage-and-intercut storytelling mocked so effectively in "Walk Hard." But Lady Thatcher's memory is fading her, and she's seeing her late husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent) deride and support her out of the corner of her eye.

Meryl Streep Iron Lady Trailer

In other words, imagine if a political biography of Ronald Reagan involved the 40th President of the United States recounting his youth at the prodding of circumstance and a friendly space alien. Or a dog who talks. This is the first female Prime Minister of a nuclear power, a woman who fought terrorism, leader of a vanguard of free-trade and pro-business movements whose aftereffects and aftershocks have cast a long shadow -- she may not deserve better, but she certainly deserves smarter. But at some point, screenwriter Abi Morgan (who also co-wrote the excellent understated "Shame," with Steve McQueen, and let us now consider the scales balanced) imagined this story needed a little juice, and so gave us goofy ghostly visits interrupted by the occasional explosion or rousing defense of the British Pound and tax cuts from Streep, delievered with the bleak blue eyes of a basilisk.

Part of the film is a politicized version of the superhero origin story, with a young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) darting upstairs during an air-raid from shelter to cover her family shop's butter-square with a crystal cover so as to protect it from German bombs. Those three bombs zoom in, ever-closer, on the bright-lit shock of Margaret's face so as to demonstrate that yes, Thatcher knew what it was to fight for the rights of a small businessman against not only small-minded bureaucrats but also the fricking Nazis.

The Iron Lady

Dad is a mayor, a shopkeeper and believes in Margaret, whose dishwashing mother can't touch Margaret's just-opened letter of acceptance to Oxford: "Me hands're still damp." "The Iron Lady" is less operatic than it is soap operatic -- it's Nixon by way of Miss Havisham -- marking time and managing the passage of days and years with old-age makeup and montage. Director Phyllida Lloyd (of "Mamma Mia," which may explain the film's resemblance to the world's most depressing ABBA video) gives us the most mainstream possible take on Thatcher, turning the real woman who said "There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families" into a woman howling at her departing ghost-husband "I don't want to be on my own!" Again, whether you lean Right or Left, really?

The cinematography is glum and washed-out in the present day (all the better to hide any spark of life, my dear) with the past in a golden glow -- the kind of golden glow that makes anything look good. ("It used to be what you it's what you feel," bemoans Thatcher on a doctor's visit, with no sense of irony.) Thatcher, a shopkeeper's daughter, went to parliament, led her party, went on to lead a nation -- and it's all ground beneath the hooves of a film that races from the 1930s to the present breathlessly, and thoughtlessly, in pursuit of the next big story hook. Broadbent is lively -- as lively as a hallucination or a flashback can be -- and the supporting cast wastes such good sports as Roger Allam, Richard E. Grant, Olivia Colman and Anthony Head.

The Iron Lady

As for Streep, her dissection of Thatcher's every turn and twitch is the motion-capture performance of the year, albeit one given by an actual human. There's no heart here, just the hollow clockwork of a director grinding the gears of a script that's trying to go too far with too little new fuel in its rusty standard-issue bio-pic tank. Making "The King's Speech" look like "Secret Honor," "The Iron Lady" is a shabby tin toy version of a lived and extraordinary life, less a window into the soul than a 60-foot wide postage stamp. [D]

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  • Aimee | December 27, 2011 6:06 PMReply

    You know what's pathetic? That STREEP will get a nomination before THERON in the best performance of the year, YOUNG ADULT. Ugh- even Close is in contention before THERON. Dear Academy members, use your brain and vote for CHARLIZE THERON.

  • ronju | December 28, 2011 1:13 AM

    I second this! Viva Theron for Best Actress! Very memorable performance and film.

  • Pacman | December 27, 2011 6:18 PM

    LOL @ the most comments on this page for Young Adult and not the review or the movie in question. Hey, I liked Young Adult 2093483209489 times more than The Iron Lady which by the way is so all over the place and crappy, I thought I was watched an unedited History Channel short.

  • Demetri | December 27, 2011 6:15 PM

    Ok, I have to admit I had a hard time adjusting to Young Adult. But it's the only movie/performance that has been on my mind for more than a week. After seeing it, I got into a huge discussion with a couple of friends about the film. I don't think I've ever had that intense of a debate about the ending of a film. This is all being said in a good way. For a film to linger on someone's mind for that many days and to constantly go back and think of Theron's savagely sad performance, there is obviously something special there. I have now warmed up to it and went and saw Young Adult again this weekend with my family. I think it's one of those films that will end up being a cult favorite. It should have gone on VOD because it's not something that is going to fare well in wide release. Mainstream audiences clearly want to see crap like Chipwrecked and Sherlock Holmes (I liked the first one, though). I saw Albert Nobbs a few days ago and let me just say- WHAT THE FUCK. Wow, that film is so boring and slow.

  • Grant | December 27, 2011 6:11 PM

    I think it will end up like this:
    1) Williams (FTW)
    2) Swinton
    3) Streep
    4) Davis
    5) Theron

    Theron should be higher up but the film is so polarizing, she will be battling it out for that last spot. I think she gives the second best performance of the year. Williams' wowed me in My Week with Marilyn but Theron was masterful in Young Adult. Davis isn't a lock for a win like people are thinking. Williams' and Swinton have won the majority of percursor awards. I hope it's between Williams and Theron.

  • I dream of Genie | December 27, 2011 6:09 PM

    I have to agree with this. I loved loved loved Theron in Young Adult. She should be nominated before Close and Streep. Performance of the year, indeed.

  • Nik Grape | December 27, 2011 12:21 PMReply

    That's a shame.

  • Finn | December 27, 2011 11:25 AMReply

    Aw, come on, James Rocchi, tell us what you really think!

  • The Playlist | December 27, 2011 11:04 AMReply

    Who said she's not getting a nomination?

  • Ronju | December 27, 2011 2:01 AMReply

    Why is everyone so offended by a negative review of the film??

  • Henry | December 27, 2011 6:08 PM

    Streep fanatics. Duh.

  • Matthew | December 27, 2011 12:10 AMReply

    Ahaha, this review made me laugh. Have fun stewing in your bitterness when Streep sets another record for nominations.

  • ojie | December 26, 2011 9:38 PMReply

    To be fair, i stay away from Playlist reviews because i have noticed that they tend to favour indie flicks all the time, well maybe because it is an indie site

  • Aimee | December 27, 2011 6:07 PM

    No, you're mistaken. They tend to favor GOOD films. The IRON LADY is nothing short of comedy although it aspires to be serious. It's horrible on every level.

  • Sarah | December 26, 2011 5:52 PMReply

    I have seen this film and have to disagree with this shocking review. If James Rocchi, the writer of this scathing review can't even get his facts right about how many Oscars an actress such as Meryl Streep has won, then I think his review and opinion becomes invalid. I wouldn't pay any attention to his comments and poor journalism - go and see the film for yourself and make your own mind up.


  • Chase | December 26, 2011 2:44 PMReply

    Don't you mean two-time winner and multiple Oscar nominee?

  • Mark Zhuravsky | December 26, 2011 5:23 PM

    That's correct, thank you Chase.

  • kil | December 26, 2011 12:59 PMReply

    What about the soundtrack..any good?

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