As Meryl Streep proudly holds aloft her BAFTA for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, and proclaims she is “proud of the film” Kevin Williamson goes where few self-respecting Scotsmen would be seen dead: to review the movie for Bella.
THE IRON LADY
I’m going to declare my hand here and say from the start that I am not, and never have been, a member of the Margaret Thatcher Fan Club. Furthermore, halfway through viewing this film I had a freak accident and fractured my toe. It still hurts. This is my way of saying I wasnt predisposed to pen a glowing review of ‘The Iron Lady.’ But being a fair-minded soul I’ll try and review the film on its merits as a movie rather than as a critique of its subject.
No one can deny that Mrs Thatcher made a huge impact in her time in politics. To some she was the blue rinse saviour of a nation going down the tubes. To others she was a one-woman wrecking ball whose policies were entirely negative. Such are the passions she still arouses I guess a movie of her life was inevitable.
But therein lies the problem. Despite her debatable achievements, her notoriety, her legion of admirers, Mrs Thatcher’s day-to-day life was little different from that of any other politician: a constant procession of elections, meetings, conferences, speeches and lunches. Yawn.
Director Phyllida Lloyd was given the daunting task of constructing an original and engaging movie out of such poor dramatic material. It was a task she gloriously and resolutely declined. Instead she dug out a box of old newspaper clippings, consulted old episodes of Spitting Image for the finer nuances of character, and battered together a Comic Strip version of Der Maggie.
If there’s one thing ‘The Iron Lady’ can’t be accused of it’s subtlety. The film opens with a shot of milk cartons on a shelf. Milk, geddit? They’re in a grocer’s shop. A grocer’s shop, geddit? Five seconds into the movie and any stray cinephiles might feel they’ve been patronised enough. But hang on. What’s this? It’s an Asian corner shop. And there’s strange foreign music on the radio, tunes you might hear, say, while waiting for a takeaway curry.
Oh dear. We’re now twenty seconds into the movie and the clever director has switched from spoon feeding us instantly recognisably reference points to ladling on irony like its two inches of margarine smeared on a slice of Hovis. I check my watch. Only one hour and forty minutes to go.
As the film unfolds, or, to be more precise, unzips, we are dragged by our scrotums along a conveyor belt of Thatcher box ticks like it’s a grainy episode of ‘This Is Your Life with a wooden monochrome Eamonn Andrews as compere.
As it clunks from one searingly predictable flashback to the next you have to wonder whether Bruce Forsyth was hired as script consultant. “Belgrano, yes, the Belgrano, must remember the Belgrano, the handbag, we got that already, don’t forget Geoffrey Howe, the cuddly toy, cant forget the cuddly toy, Airey Nieve, Brighton bomb, get nothing in this game for a pair, Tony Blair, nice to see ya, to see ya….”
There’s a real Blue Peter feel to this biopic-by-numbers. Empty egg boxes and cereal cartons are given a lick of paint and transformed into cheering cardboard cut-outs at Tory party conferences. Shep the dog plays the part of Dennis. And holding the whole shoddy mess together is the sticky-backed plastic that is Meryl “Golden Globes” Streep.
Some of Thatcher’s fiercest critics, such as Dennis Skinner, have heaped praise on Streep’s performance. She’s even been shortlisted for an Oscar. Is she really that good? Let’s put it another way. The make up department deserve a pat on the back for making Streep look old and wrinkled rather than rich and botoxed. And Streep herself has evidently studied old episodes of ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Who Do You Do?’ She nails the Thatcher voice and mannerisms. She’s easly as good as Rory Bremner and miles better than Mike Yarwood. In the bravo new world of ‘Stars In Their Eyes’ I guess that’s all that matters.
The narrative glue that hold’s the film together is Dennis and Maggie’s great love for one another. But before loading up on the popcorn and Kleenex I suspect that anyone who enjoyed Streep and de Niro’s painful jerking of tears in ‘Falling In Love’ may be a tad disappointed by ‘The Iron Lady’. This isn’t really a date movie.
Even the much lauded dementia angle is little more than another clunky plot device to hang the flashbacks on. Mrs T’s dementia consists mainly of hallucinating Dennis and hearing old radio programs about, well, about herself. That apart she’s lucid and fully functioning. Not really much like proper dementia but then again this is not much like a proper movie.
But what of the politics? There are newspaper headlines, cheering crowds waving Union Jacks, meetings full of anonymous old Etonians, but mostly the issues of the day are reduced to Punch-and-Judy routines. In this sense the film is clearly aimed at a dumbed-down/American audience and them thar politics would just get in the way of an everyday tale of an everyday housewife doing battle with the everyday forces of darkness. Every last day of her handbag dangling life.
To analyse the political content of ‘The Iron Lady’ would elevate the movie to a higher intellectual plane than it deserves. The film jumps from the Falklands War in 1982 to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Between those seven years? Nothing to see, folks, move along. Aye, right.
The Iron Lady isn’t a political film. It isn’t even an insightful biopic. It’s a different kind of movie, and belongs in a different kind of category. File alongside ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’, ‘Billy The Kid Versus Dracula’ and ‘Falling In Love’. Laughably dire.