A biopic seems like a hard thing to mess up. If you have an interesting subject and a good cast, there shouldn't be an issue. Pick out the major highlights of a person's life and throw them at the screen. It might not be the most eloquent or innovative film, but it will make sense. Writer Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd are not content to just bring the life of Margaret Thatcher to the screen in The Iron Lady. They want to make a topical film about the modern history of terrorism. They want to show the impact of the Conservative movement in British Parliament in the 1980s. They want to sanctify Margaret Thatcher as a woman, vilify her as a politician and mother, and punish her with her own husband's death ala an ancient Greek tragedy.
Any one of these approaches would have had enough content to fill a feature length film. Thrown all together with a bizarre flourish for melodrama, whispers, and random explosions, none of them come out making much sense. The Iron Lady is a film that suffers not from ambition but from artistic greed. Why make one good film when you can go for style and weight over cohesion and substance? If people don't get it, that means they don't appreciate cinematic art.
Meryl Streep has elevated some questionable films in the past with a strong leading performance. Her Margaret Thatcher doesn't even have a chance. Encased in an unflinching mask of prosthetics, Meryl Streep has to rely on gimmicky walks and volume to show any change in character.
If Abi Morgan wanted to write a character study of a woman overcome with grief and the early stages of Alzheimer's, she should have written a character study of a woman overcome with grief and the early stages of Alzheimer's. The manipulative framing device of The Iron Lady is the death of Denis Thatcher, Margaret's husband.
Margaret doesn't really understand that Denis is dead. He eats breakfast with her. He gets ready for the day with her. He even helps her relive her triumphs and failures as a politician, wife, and mother. Denis is the specter of her past, refusing to let her move on in the present. He has haunted her for six years at this point and the illusion of his presence is only just beginning to crack.
It feels like half the film is set in the haze of grief and Alzheimer's, which does nothing to create any excitement for the livelier flashbacks. The most successful moments in the film are the flashbacks to Thatcher's earliest foray into politics. From her acceptance into Oxford to her first electoral defeat and straight through to her first landslide victory, the young Margaret (played by Alexandra Roach) gets more believable scenes than any other section of the film. Too bad she gets only a few minutes of screen time in the entire feature.
The Iron Lady is a mess of a feature that has no idea what it wants to be. The Alzheimer's story plays like a spoof of a haunted house film. The earliest flashbacks are the earnest story of a woman with dreams of being important. The rise to party leader and early years as Prime Minister are played as a cautionary tale about abandoning everything you stand for to achieve success. The policy battles in parliament are strange pastiches of shouts, disembodied voices, longing gazes, and historical footage to show the opposition's views more clearly than Thatcher's. And the repeated footage of explosions from the IRA and Al Qaeda are a senseless grab for topicality in a story that is relevant on its own with the economic troubles in the EU and the US. It's as if no one trusted the story of Margaret Thatcher to stand up as a film on its own.
Say what you will about Margaret Thatcher's politics. Her life story has made for interesting films in the past. With Meryl Streep at the helm, The Iron Lady should have soared above the by the numbers biopics with great ease. Instead, it's overly manipulative pandering to critics that couldn't even succeed in showcasing a phenomenal actress in a juicy role.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.