Except for some specific facts of its existence — a Margaret Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep and produced by the Weinsteins — The Iron Lady would be straight-to-video. It's a horrid mess, one of the worst-made movies I can remember. But due to its pedigree, it will garner at least one Academy Award nomination (for Streep) and, hell, maybe even a win. It's a great disservice to Oscar completists.
As directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), The Iron Lady is overstuffed with cinematic histrionics: slow motion, speed-up, overdubs, crazy angles, precious framing, dramatic lighting ... anything to distract you from the fact that there's no there there.
The framing device of the film is former British prime minister Thatcher as an elderly woman: the lioness in winter haunted by hallucinations of her husband and crippling, unrelenting visions of past episodes. These scenes contribute the best of the film — the poignancy of the universality of aging, the great equalizer — and the worst — a screenplay structure that emphasizes a fractured, episodic narrative, the ruminations of a doddering dementia case (plus a broke-down vehicle for Jim Broadbent as Mr. Thatcher, his worst role and performance).
As written by Abi Morgan (Shame, BBC's The Hour), The Iron Lady unravels as an overdone, incoherent series of flashbacks. The Iron Lady is a life in montage.
The film flirts with interesting questions, asking if Thatcher's conservatism was a laudable principle or debilitating for its rigidity. In Britain in the late-1970s/early-'80s, a nation beset by economic turmoil, domestic strife, and war, Thatcher stays the course and incurs disapproval. And then, to the rescue, another montage: a decisive victory in the Falklands leads to economic boom, cheering crowds, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a complicated decade simplified to 15 seconds.
The Iron Lady is essentially a docudrama, utilizing plenty of historical stock footage mixed in with original material. Newsreels of riots are cut with the pensive Streep sitting in the back of a car while a protester from central casting yells at her through the window. It feels like cheating.
The cumulative effect holds the audience at arm's length from the film's subject. The Iron Lady is constantly approaching Thatcher askew and never engages her for long. It's an accretion of glancing blows.
Her performance did allow me to finally pinpoint just what it is about Streep as an actress that leaves me cold: She's rarely less than good, but she's exhausting. Streep supplies more acting per square inch than anyone else on the planet. In some over-the-top roles — the boisterous Julia Child, the fictive Susan Orlean — it's appropriate and improves the cinematic whole. But Streep is never not acting, providing a stream of performance infills and placeholders until the next line of dialog or big emoting. This is not how (most) real humans behave, so her performances are always just that. Meryl Streep is an acting shark, constantly swimming to live.
The Iron Lady
Opening Friday, January 13th