The Iron Lady’s Iron Likeability

Can Meryl Streep save this snoozer of a biopic about Margaret Thatcher? Does the Pope wear a funny hat?

the iron lady 1119 The Iron Ladys Iron Likeability

Streep.

Like prepping for a doctorate dissertation on historic genetics impersonation, another exhausting Meryl Streep research job with new facial prostheses, liver spots, dewlaps, wigs and lockjaw elocution lessons, makes her imitation of England’s longest-running prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, the only thing about The Iron Lady worth recommending. Critics are tossing around words like astonishing and incredible, and she stands a strong chance of winning another Oscar, but what’s so unusual about that? We’ve come to expect nothing less from the unimpeachable talents of a leading lady who only yesterday was doing such a spot-on (and, in my opinion, vastly superior) job of mimicking Julia Child. Otherwise, The Iron Lady is something of a bore. I found it dreary and pedestrian, her performance polished but predictable and almost two hours of Margaret Thatcher more than I could stand with my eyes open. There’s nothing even Ms. Streep’s craft and resourcefulness can do to make this cold, humorless woman of iron likeable, and the whole thing is too dry to sustain so much screen time.

From where I sit, The Iron Lady almost seems like an apology by director Phyllida Lloyd for making a fool of Majestic Meryl in their previous collaboration, the dismal Mamma Mia! The clunky screenplay by Abi Morgan (Shame) tells us nothing about Mrs. Thatcher we don’t already know, and doesn’t even allow the star to grow into the role in a natural trajectory. Instead it forces her to hit the ground running—or in this case, hobbling. It begins when she’s 86, retired, reclusive and a lonely, fumbling old crone with jowls and house slippers, stooped over, walking haltingly and suffering from Alzheimer’s as she complains about the price of milk. Nowhere to go but up, we abruptly cut to the young Margaret (an excellent Alexandra Roach), working in her father’s grocery sore during World War II, rushing upstairs from the bomb cellar to cover the butter. The film rushes from her postwar schooling to her becoming Britain’s first and only female prime minister, who fought against gender prejudice and defeated sexism to achieve power in a man’s world, illustrated by newsreel footage. Interestingly enough, she is not mourned by the British people, who hate the way she played the role of condescending matriarch, scolding her subjects while wreaking havoc on their cultural traditions and social institutions. They remember with bitterness the conservative Thatcher years of trade-union strikes, blackouts, riots and garbage piled in the streets. They curse the way she staged a reckless war in the Falklands to save her political career, sacrificing the lives of British and Argentine soldiers in what many denounce as a greedy display of self-pride masquerading as patriotism. She wrecked the manufacturing economy and deregulated banking, while the middle-class that elected her three times watched their savings destroyed. The film glosses over most of the facts, ignores the poll tax conflict that led to her political defeat and offers no opinions about the life she lived or the triumphs and mistakes she made. According to the historians and journalists I’ve read who have catalogued both her political and private lives, there’s a much more interesting story to be told than the one in this dodgy film. There is no evidence that Mrs. Thatcher had any parenting skills. Her daughter, Carol, is depicted as a numbskull who drops in for tea and nags her mother about doctor’s appointments, completely skirting the issue of why she disappeared from public life after the British press exposed her as a rampant racist. Except for a voice on the long-distance phone, there is almost no mention of Mrs. Thatcher’s son, Mark, who distanced himself from his mother and fled to South Africa, where he tried to overthrow the government and stage a coup. The result is an oddly superficial biopic that sentimentalizes and trivializes its subject instead of showing her as the heartless, often nasty piece of work she really was.

What it does show entirely too much of is her relationship with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), after his death. The conceit in Ms. Morgan’s script is the way her adored partner and helpmate continues to counsel his widow, make comments and offer advice from beyond the grave, like Dolly Levi’s dead husband in Hello, Dolly! For a time, she became a two-fisted, hands-on inspiration to women and a forceful adversary to men who opposed her views, but opinions changed as her callous attacks on—and refusal to listen to—her advisers in Parliament painted an unpleasant picture in the press. But the people backed her in 1979 and she did make a difference. They applauded her for declaring war on the IRA, then blamed her for the highest unemployment in England since 1934. In a deep recession, facing a declining economy much like the one we face today, the U.K. was polarized disastrously. Trying to keep the peace by sending more troops to Ireland, refusing to negotiate with “thugs and criminals,” making budget cuts in England while deploying a task force of 28,000 troops to the Falklands, she was viciously criticized, but vindicated herself by claiming to write personal condolences to the families of every casualty. Then she lost them again by raising taxes, demanding the same penalties from the poor that she got from the rich. As she bullied her own Conservative Party members and humiliated her cabinet ministers, questions arose about her mental stability, and she was eventually forced to retire, and furious about it. Is there any doubt that history writes a mixed review of her days in power at 10 Downing Street?

Let it be said that Ms. Streep is galvanizing, even as the film slogs through too much information and not nearly enough illumination. As Mrs. Thatcher, she’s arrogant, grandiose, indefatigable and impervious to human frailty, weathering all odds by clutching her trademark pearls and tilting her coiffed hairdo in the direction of providence as though it was a chunk of indestructible cement in the eye of a storm. She is always worth watching, even when The Iron Lady isn’t.

rreed@observer.com

THE IRON LADY

Running Time 105 minutes

Written by Abi Morgan

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent and Richard E. Grant

2/4

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    There is nothing to like about hideous hag Meryl Streep. No way this flop film is any good.

  2. Andy says:

    Well Rex, if you’d really done your research and not just read the press kit you would know that M. Thatcher had a steel-trap wit and humor in abundance. But I guess you are American so much of it would be too subtle for you.

  3. Paul in wimbledon says:

    Clearly a review written by an American who talks out of his butt. If you do not have a grasp of facts you shoul keep your gob shut an not talk about the Falklands conflict, or the fight for right in the 80s in UK. Or shall we discuss the KKK or Guantanamo or Rendition?

  4. Anonymous says:

    “The film rushes from her postwar schooling to her becoming Britain’s first and only female prime minister, ”
    So I guess it misses the parts from 1944 to 1950 when provincial Maggie Thatcher, graduated Oxford, worked as an Industrial Chemist, trained as a lawyer, passed the bar, married and had 2 kids ALL BEFORE 1950…

    Some woman huh? Then decided to go into politics in an all male Conservative environment.

    The woman was a dynamo of intellect and action at a time when women where expected to stay in the kitchen– so it takes a real effort to turn her life into a boring two hours.

    But what do you expect from leftists who hate her guts? 

    Of course, if “feminists” were not merely lefty shill-holes, Mrs T would be a hero to them.

    1. tp says:

      I’m not a Thatcher fan, whilst admiring her pluck, but I found the film utterly fascinating – certainly not boring. My take on her contribution to Britain is that she shifted vast amounts of money from the poor to the middle class, which has ultimately saved Britain from being a modern day Greece. I just wish she had chosen the rich for this purpose instead of the poor. But the film is mostly about Thatcher as a dementia victim, not a politician. You wouldn’t expect a film focusing on Churchill’s prodigious drinking to be dull now would you? Unless you wanted a history lesson instead. I think we can accept a film or two about a  particular aspect of a person instead of baying for yet another homogeneous hagiography. Couldn’t agree more with you about the baneful left, though. 

  5. Stephan says:

    I’m surprised this review didn’t manage to mention the “awful bankers” and “greedy politicians” along with the “hero union workers”. Amazing how someone can have a chip on their shoulder for so many years. Get over yourself. Clearly short term memory has gone for this reviewer as he has forgotten all about Tony Bliar and New Liebour!
    Do they pay these people to write garbage like this?

  6. gerard says:

    Left wing pap.

    1. Anonymous says:

      You were looking for some right-wing pap?

  7. gerard says:

    Why not ask does the President wear a tie?

    What hypocrisy. First to ridicule the pope and his “hat” to make a point that is not true by people who for the most part choose to dress like fools and mark up and pierce their bodies is comical. Second, the pope does not wear a hat. He wears a mitre for ceremonial purposes. I won’t pretend to give you a history lesson as it is obvious by your comments that you care not a wit for history. And the pope is not the only one to wear a mitre. Many bishops do as well.

    1. tp says:

      Yeah. Rex doesn’t even know the difference between “exhausting” and “exhaustive”. Leave the poor guy alone or he’ll be out of a job and we’ll all be paying for it.

  8. Black Eagle says:

    She may have got the intonations good, and copied the look, but the overall message of the picture is to throw acid on Thatcher, and dirt on conservatives, and also to re-write history.  A great lady besmirched by a pathetic crop.  Apologies to the Brits once again from an American who knows the real history. 

  9. Anonymous says:

    Reed is so blinded by his liberal bias, that his snobery didn’t dare hide itself.

  10. Mb10cfc says:

    There is not such thing as “Prime Minister of England”. It’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That includes a lot more than just England.
    Maybe you should do some research on things before criticising a film it appears you don’t seem to understand. 

  11. R Waterbor says:

    Too bad Rex Reed suffuses his review of this movie with his own political views. He is supposed to give us informed views of the movie’s pluses and minuses, not a harangue about what ill effect he thinks Mrs. Thatcher had on British society. One more example of the degradation of journalism in this country. This review insults the reader’s intelligence in a vain effort to promote a liberal’s view of a conservative leader.

    1. Anonymous says:

      As oppose to a Conservative’s view of a Conservative Leader!

      Maggie T was a polarising leader – many loved her, many loathed her. Any review of her is inevitably going to inflame passions either way. Why even try to be without bias? We all have it.

  12. Darren says:

    Incredibly biased review, had nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with a liberal’s hatred of a conservative (and particularly a strong conservative woman). FYI – there was a reason that Thatcher one by a landslide multiple times, you buffoon.

  13. Brennan Charlie says:

    Thatcher wasn’t a conservative: she was an anarchist who wrecked every traditional value and conservative institution that she touched. When will the right see that the market is not conservative: it’s the most radical force of pure chaos in the world.

    1. tp says:

      “Thatcher and Regan both went senile in old age.” You seem to have trumped both of them. God, help us – the world has to suffer you in it for how many more years? Do us a favour and take up alcohol, anything, but stop writing.

  14. Brennan Charlie says:

    As a feminist hero: remind me how many women Thatcher gave jobs in cabinet or government to? That’s right:ZERO

  15. American conservatives are so blinded by the fantasy romance between Reagan (who they conveniently forget  was VERY MUCH in favor of higher taxes for the rich) and Thatcher that they foolishly ignore the obvious fact that financial deregulation is the least socially conservative policy imaginable: the policies that this woman pursued are the ENGINE of globalization, she smashed open the traditional media and turned the world into a supermarket where everything: nation, god, sex, family, EVERYTHING was for sale.

    She was an anarchist who did more to undermine traditional values than any other person in UK history. Now, we live in a world shaped by Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economists (Thatcher’s idols) and the old world, of manufacturing and industry is GONE forever to Asia: this is Thatcher’s dream world: a nation of service providers and consumers: a nation that makes nothing and shuffles bits of paper about for a living in order to buy stuff from China with money we borrowed from China.

    But all you remember is the collapse of communism. Well this is the collapse of her capitalism that we are living through now: this recession hasn’t even BEGUN yet: Thatcher’s discredited financial policies have brought us to the verge of total destruction and the Chinese economy is looking VERY shaky. Thatcher told us that we could all be middle-class but she has in fact DESTROYED the middle class AND family values with debt, job-insecurity and globalized industry.

  16. Thatcher and Regan both went senile in old age. The leftists who fought them stayed sharp as tacks until the day they died. There is a strong link between senility and the kind of mental inflexibility that is associated with the hard-right. Sarah Palin will be drooling into a cup by the time she’s 70: you wait and see.

  17. James Fletcher says:

    Rex Reed – Your job is a film reviewer – remember that, because as a political historian you’re rubbish …., so many factual mistakes in your piece. I can’t be bothered to list them, but anyone who is British and of voting age during the late 70′s & 80′s will know they are glaring mistakes, even if you are not of Mrs Thatcher’s political persuasion.
    Remember she won three landslide elections in a row, and set-up a fourth election win for her party. Every British Prime Minister since has claimed to be her political heir to some extent or other. Hardly a sign of ‘Hate’ by the British public?
    Many on the left can’t stand her (18 years in the political wilderness in Britain hurts), but even so, some do now admit they respect her. The right and centre thinking i.e. the majority in the UK, know that she was a great Prime Minister – Thatcher & Churchill vie for the top spot for best 20th Century British Prime Minister if asked.
    So Rex your piece stinks, it is factually incorrect and you have no idea what the average Britain thinks of Mrs Thatcher. Stick to reviewing the film.

  18. witchbiyach says:

    What a disgusting display of humiliating  cowtowing to the overrated Meryl Streep. 

  19. witchbiyach says:

    And another thing, this movie is more like a parody of Hollywood pretentiousness and self importance parading as Oscar bait, than anything else.  I can tell that from the previews alone. 

    1. tp says:

      Ah, so you haven’t seen it. Just know you’ll love it when you do.

      1. witchbiyach says:

        witchbiyach, I’ve seen it about a million times and have no desire to sit through it again.  I might give it a chance to surprise me when it comes to cable which is what I do with movies like this and The Blind Side, The Kings Speech and The Help and those types of movies.  When I watched the previews I thought of one of those Hollywood parody movies where they are at an awards show watching parodied film clips and I imagined Meryl Streep with that smarmy look on her face but clenching her husbands knees so tightly with desperation that his eyes were rolled back in his head.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Wow, what an awful review – perhaps the worst I’ve ever read in a serious publication. And I don’t mean the film, I mean the reviewer. 

    We don’t need your potted views about Thatcherism (filled as they are with Sophomore indignation and inaccuracy) and really, is it such a crime that the film “completely skirts around” her daughter’s short-lived celebrity? Her son did not attempt a coup against the South African government but Equatorial Guinea. I doubt he would still be living in Cape Town if he had…

    “They remember with bitterness the conservative Thatcher years of trade-union strikes, blackouts, riots and garbage piled in the streets. They curse the way she staged a reckless war in the Falklands to save her political career…”

    As for the former sentence, most British people regard Thatcher as having dealt with the strikes, garbage and blackouts (which was why they voted for her after the Winter of Discontent). As for the latter, where on earth have you got this from? Thatcher swept back to power precisely because of the Falklands War and David Cameron’s recent commitment to the Islands was cynically calculated to shore up his support. 

    I make these observations as someone on the Left and a life-long opponent of Thatcherism. I just find it annoying to read a “review” so full of inaccurate tropes when I simply wanted to find out if the film was any good.

    1. tp says:

      Ditto to everything you have written, including your opposition to Thatcher. Don’t expect a well-rounded film but I thought it was pretty close to perfect for what it set out to do. And NO, it didn’t set out to do much more than provide an opportunity for the greatest film actress of our generation to trot out her stuff. And what’s wrong with that?

      1. witchbiyach says:

         Meryl Streep is the most incredibly overrated actress in Hollywood history. She is indeed amazingly good but not nearly as good as she’s supposed to be. She’s about as good as an above-average English actress.  In my useless opinion anyway.

        I just don’t get it. I don’t get how she has become so revered for a string of cliche riddled, overacted roles in mediocre movies. I went to see Sophie’s Choice at the theater and was bowled over. I watched it again on cable recently and wondered if  I was watching the same movie. What happened to it?

      2. tp says:

        I am not saying you have to like Streep because I do, but her style of acting probably doesn’t appeal to those who expect naturalism. She doesn’t do that. She is what I call a hyper-realistic actress (which isn’t exactly overacting, though some will think so). It’s rather out of fashion, actually. But your comment is interesting nonetheless. What I don’t understand is why you were bowled over by the film Sophie’s Choice (and presumably her performance), yet later her performance escaped you. It’s the same performance – on a different screen. Is she to blame for that? You are right though, her hyper-realism works best on the huge screen. You know they said the same thing about Olivier – ham etc. He wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea either. Great art seldom appeals to all.

      3. witchbiyach says:

        You are right about my tastes in acting. I enjoy understated  performances and am a huge fan of the English approach to acting – become the character. It’s as if they actually morph into the character they are playing to the point of changing even their physical appearance somehow.   To me, that’s acting. But most American actors think yelling is good acting or worse yet, they draw on THEIR emotions for their portrayal, ie. “the method.”  Too much of the actor themselves show through in American actors.  Meryl Streep is always Meryl Streep playing the character I don’t care how much people claim she is a “mimic” and her performances reek of her own self worship.

        As far as Sophie’s Choice. When that movie came out Streep was still fairly fresh. She had not become a cliche of overrated overacting. It was one of her first “accent” pieces. But now when I watch it, it’s as if she’s parodying herself. I viewed it again after almost 30 years of Streep’s progress towards ultimately plateauing as a cliche.

        I heard an excerpt from Iron Lady on NPR and actually laughed out loud it sounded like such a comical parody. I would challenge anyone to listen to the dialogue from that movie without viewing the great Meryl Streep at work and they will hear what I see.

        When I think of what acting should be, I think of Daniel Day Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”. He puts Meryl’s head in the mud in my view.

        Thanks for the debate.

      4. witchbiyach says:

        P.S. TP, I want to clarify that I think Streep is a great actress, just not as great as she’s supposed to be – nobody could be.  

  21. DoC Hackenbush says:

    Here we go…paranoid, self-pitying, zealous far-right goons crying about unfair liberal bias attacks, even as they attack and besmirch anyone they perceive as “left-wingers”…what a bunch of hypocrites.

    I am far from the biggest Rex Reed fan, but in this instance I did not find anything in his critique that exhibited “liberal bias”…but it is all too easy to spot far-right bias from “Kevin S.” and his ilk.

    Rather, anytime anyone dares have anything to say other than praise for anything remotely connected to conservatism, the thin-skinned far-right zealots come out in force. 

    Go back to your fantasy bubble and stick with getting your info from Fox News, dummies…they’ll continue to affirm your point of view, without letting a little things like difference of opinion or actual facts get in the way of your ideological delusions.

  22. Stripeydelius says:

    I am British and consider myself left in my political leanings and have no love for Thatcher’s politics and would be more than happy to engage in a Maggie Bash here but really, did you even watch the film you are meant to be reviewing? Your review is full of errors, both about the film itself (which I watched this evening) and the actual history. No idea where this racist revolt on thatcher you mention comes from, news to me and every other British person! The garbage in the streets and the power cuts was years before she was PM. Saying she was Prime Minister of England is like saying Obama is President of California. American idiot.

  23. BillStanley says:

    It seems Rex Reed’s obvious dislike of Margaret Thatcher’s political views affected his judgement about this film?  I wonder if he is even aware that his inability to put aside his own political views impaired his ability to offer a fair review?       

  24. Richard Marshall says:

    what a sham of a movie….taking one’s life and encapsulating it upon one’s death bed…an anology might be taking Obama’s career from the perspective of his life when he was doing cocaine and smoking crack..what a hit piece….

  25. Westwoodnina says:

    *British Prime Minister