The Films of 2011: The Iron Lady

"There are some movies that have little or nothing to recommend them, except as a frame for a performance."  So wrote Stephanie Zacharek about My Week with Marilyn.  She might also have been describing Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, a gimmicky and sometimes borderline incompetently made film that nevertheless features Meryl Streep in one of this year's most formidable performances as Margaret Thatcher.  Detractors will claim that the praise for Streep is just more drum-beating for an actress whose talent has been agreed-upon for some time now.  Yes, we all know how good Streep can be, and yes, The Iron Lady is an otherwise weak film, but neither of those truths should preclude our recognition of her achievement here, which deserves a place in Streep’s canon alongside Kramer vs. Kramer, Silkwood, and Doubt.

The Iron Lady is so much about Streep's performance that it's actually helpful to forget that it's trying to be about Thatcher.  The sloppy montage sequences, the non-committal way in which the film shifts emphasis away from Thatcher's policies and onto her accomplishments as a woman who beat incredible odds, the baffling notion that dementia is caused by one’s hanging on to the past (and that its hallucinations can be cured by throwing away old stuff!)—all of these things are problematic, to be sure, if we're looking to watch an intelligent movie about Thatcher the politician, or even Thatcher the woman: on these grounds, The Iron Lady is certainly a failure.  Enjoying the film requires zeroing in on Streep and her trademark attention to detail and nuance: it requires forgetting, really, that the movie is any kind of a statement about any real person, and paying attention to how Streep uses her eyes, or the reading she gives to a particular line.  Divorced of all context, Streep's performance is one in which she brings to life a hard-edged, fatally stubborn woman, sometimes smug, sometimes almost comically bitchy (shades of The Devil Wears Prada here), and, at the end of her life, frustrated and tired.  Particularly in the old-age scenes, Streep could be any elderly woman suffering from fatigue and dementia; her achievement here does not seem to be that she “becomes” Thatcher, but that she transcends mere impersonation in order to turn Thatcher into just another sad, aging lady.

Streep has at least three great arias in The Iron Lady.  One occurs in a doctor’s office, as she asserts her still-intact iron will with her physician; Streep’s line readings here are probably her funniest in the film, and the most strangely touching.  Her talent for playing bitchy is in fuller flower in another scene, a committee meeting in which she berates one of her cabinet members with gradually increasing force.  The third is less showy: it’s a small scene in which Thatcher is woken in the night by a phone call from her son.  During this conversation, we not only forget we’re watching Streep, we forget we’re watching “Thatcher”—we’re simply watching an elderly woman, alone in the dark.

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