Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Iron Lady

There Can Be Only One

If compared with a host of personality biographies put on film in recent years, The Iron Lady is probably one of the most unflattering of them all, having been made when the subject is still alive, though not in the pink of health, and having the condition of her dementia being portrayed on screen. But of course you can salute the filmmakers for their courage to portray the lows in the life of its protagonist as well as to celebrate her highs, but one wonders about the hurry to make into a film, the life and times of Britain's longest serving Prime Minister, and its first female one at that.

Perhaps there are challenges now faced in today's society that make people yearn for a time where leaders had guts to make tough decisions, and to see them through, having the gall to suffer no fools and as the film portrayed, literally pulled the country out of its problems by the scruff of its neck. It was the time of doing and not just talking, and a time of economic boom after a period of gloom. I grew up in the 80s in the time of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, and on the other side of the world powers had Gorbachev flying the Soviet flag in a period of cold war. I still remember I was in Malaysia on holiday when the news of Thatcher being kicked out filtered through, and was glued to the television to learn how she got ousted from power by members of her own Conservative Party.

The film opens with a very aged Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) buying milk from the neighbourhood grocer, with nobody batting an eyelid at who she once was at the height of her power. As we learn this caused a security frenzy around the house where she's kept under close care during her twilight years, with daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) soon present for a visit. We also learn that she's suffering from slight dementia, and hallucinates her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), interacting with him as if he's still by her side, to the bewilderment of others present in the room - but I must highlight here that this plot device served its intended purpose in carrying the narrative through, and through deft crafting on screen as well as editing, made it look like clockwork. The early dinner scene where she was asked of an opinion post Islamabad hotel bombing, was simply priceless to demonstrate she still had a keen mind and strong opinion, though the narrative also suggested speaking from experience rather than about the now.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd who also teamed up with Streep in the hit musical Mamma Mia!, the narrative here seemed to focus a lot more on Thatcher's present time rather than to provide that more conventional plotting that charts her rise to power as a politician. Influenced by her grocer father when young, we catch only glimpses of her attending his fiery speeches at townhalls, and soon developed a desire to follow in his footsteps in take affirmative action rather than to sit back and do nothing. It is this drive that defines her, so much so that everything else, including family, didn't really matter, especially when she aspires to get into the highest office in the land, if only to wake the others up. But she did, and if this was supposed to take its toil on her personal life and family relationships, it wasn't really well told or dwelled upon.

In fact the story by Abi Morgan just barely scratched the surface throughout Thatcher's very colourful career, and it was such a pity that no more time got devoted to provide some keen insights on those milestones and highlights. There's a fixation with wanting to show off aging makeup effects (and they were well done), but you'd feel for the rued opportunity in shedding a lot more light on Thatcher, with her multi-faceted character being summarized and montaged quite unceremoniously in the interest of time, thereby making light of situations such as the many strikes and protests from various quarters that would pepper her administration, the assassination attempt on her at a hotel, and of course the Falklands War and the heady 80s. There were also very short glimpses at her wit and sharpness in Parliament, although one could have wished there were more of such a showcase.

Through the help of makeup, prosthetics and costuming, Meryl Streep becomes Margaret Thatcher convincingly, and put up a commendable performance as the titular Iron Lady in getting things done her way, to the point of almost being a dictator of sorts within her own Cabinet, unwilling to listen to advice and never mincing her words when rebutting or commenting others, to the point that they may feel insulted. This comes at the height of her being PM, and also sowed the seeds of discord between herself and both her supporters and detractors. Every other cast member really didn't quite matter in a way each time Streep appears on screen and mesmerizes with her close mimicry of an historical figure. If only the lightweight narrative dropped its focus on the present for the past, and had a lot more depth and substance to keep up with her.

With Oscar season around the corner, it's quite the tough fight in the Best Actress category with Streep putting her best foot forward with this film, Glenn Close being nominated for her gender bender role, and Michelle Williams as another real life personality Marilyn Monroe turning heads as well. With no disrespect to the others, I feel these three have pulled ahead of the competition, although selecting the best amongst them is a very tough choice to make. May the best lady win, and in the meantime, despite its narrative flaws, Streep's performance alone is worth the price of an admission ticket.

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