January 01, 2012

MOVIES: The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

The Iron Lady gives us Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. It is a skillful impression; you would expect no less from Streep. Unfortunately, as we should have guessed after her similar Julia Child performance, you should also expect no more than mere impression. The voice and accent, the hair, the pearls, the physical tics -- all are there -- but there's no soul, no personality. I left the movie having learned a bit about recent British history, but having learned nothing about Thatcher.

The framing device gives us Thatcher in the present day (the old-age makeup is superb); she lives alone, though she is often visited by her hallucinations of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). She hasn't entirely slipped into senility, but the lucid moments are increasingly rare. It is through her memories that we view the key moments of her career -- her entry into politics, her image makeover at the hands of consultants, her election as Prime Minister, the Falklands war -- which means that the version of history that we get is very pro-Thatcher. The movie doesn't avoid the fact that she was a controversial leader, but the arguments against her are kept very much in the background, and the movie argues that they are rooted not in politics, but in sexism.

The only particularly interesting performance in the movie comes from Harry Lloyd, who is utterly charming in his few scenes as the young Denis Thatcher (Streep and Broadbent take over the roles in roughly 1960, when Margaret is about 35).

I know that I am in a small minority where Streep is concerned. I think she's a far better comic actress than a dramatic one. In comedy, she can be delightfully spontaneous and unpredictable; in dramatic roles, I can always see how carefully every choice is being made -- breathe here and emphasize that syllable and let the voice quiver just so -- which is both distracting and annoying. If you are (like most) a fan of her dramatic work, you will probably enjoy this performance and movie more than I did.

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