Saturday, 7 January 2012

'The Iron Lady' review:

There are few political figures hated more vehemently than Margaret Thatcher. She has her defenders, but even twenty years after being forced from power by her own party, Thatcher's name provokes strong emotions. Perhaps now - with public services again being cut as the country lives through recession and mass unemployment - isn't the most sensitive time to release a biopic celebrating her life. And yet here comes 'The Iron Lady', courtesy of writer Abi Morgan and Phyllida Lloyd, the director of 'Mamma Mia!'.

The film - as everybody surely knows - stars 16-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep as a softer, prettier, more smiley version of Thatcher, who exists somewhere under ten pounds of make-up. Taking power in 1979 she comes over as something like Julia Child (the ungainly, nasal TV chef Streep impersonated in 'Julie & Julia') with pre-emptive missile strike capability and big hair. More effective are the scenes in which Streep plays a modern day version of the former leader: an old lady grappling with dementia alone in her flat. It'd be difficult for even the most ardent socialist not to see the humanity here, which in some respects makes the film resemble 'Downfall' - the German film that chronicled the final days of Hitler.

It's strongest in these moments, as frequent backflashes through Thatcher's political life are oddly neutered in a way which should infuriate her supporters and detractors in equal measure. Possibly mindful of the divisive nature of her politics, this Weinstein-backed Oscar bait prefers to see her life through a less complex prism: one of the first female leader of a Western power - an undeniable watershed achievement, even if she did little to aid working women during the 80s. But with Thatcher's social policies still felt by Britain's poorest communities, making a film predominantly about Thatcher's gender - and her girl power rise to the forefront of a male dominated world - feels roughly equivalent to focussing on Hitler's vegetarianism.

There is some stuff here about whether or not she was so guided by principle and singular conviction as to be obstinate (a word she gets right away in a crossword), whilst Morgan's screenplay even deserves some credit for its framing of the sinking of the Belgrano as a terrible decision which prolonged the Falklands war and caused the deaths of many British serviceman (as well as 300 Argentine sailors). But otherwise, beyond presenting protesters and Labour MPs as red-faced shouty men, the film tries very hard to run away from politics. Prominent Tories have been irked by the film's portrayal of Thatcher's mental decline, with the leader shown going very clearly mad during a cabinet meeting (the film's strongest sequence), but it's overall unlikely to offend anybody too severely.

How you feel about Streep's Thatcher will no doubt have more to do with your politics going in than anything in the film itself, which isn't helped by its tepid ITV drama atmosphere. Perhaps the most damning indictment of 'The Iron Lady' is that it isn't even attempting to be as incendiary as its subject. We might have expected a film that would, at the very least, provoke discussion. I'd be very surprised if too many audience members found themselves thinking about this disposable pap too long after the fact. Though it should go without saying by now that Olivia Coleman is brilliant as daughter Carol, while Jim Broadbent, who plays husband Dennis, is good value as ever - only Streep's reputation and inevitable Academy Award nomination (and possible win) are keeping this film from cultural oblivion.

'The Iron Lady' is on a wide release now and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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