This first paragraph will be filled with statements you either already know or should already know. Meryl Streep is a great actress. The plethora and diversity of the roles she has done is testament to this. And she has an uncanny, chameleon-like ability to adopt, use and make accents work for her character. Because of her ability to create such believable, indelible, interesting characters, she frequently appears in films that are not as memorable as her performance. None of this should come as news to you. And all of this is applicable to "The Iron Lady", the new biopic about Margaret Thatcher.
Beginning in "Current Day", Thatcher (Streep) ambles down the street, oblivious to most, and wanders into a shop to buy a pint of milk. She is unrecognized, ignored and shocked by the behavior of the people in the shop. Returning home, Denis (Jim Broadbent), her husband, spreads too much butter on his toast earning a chiding remark from his wife. Then, he realizes her assistants are in a tizzy, speaking in whispered tones. Why and how did Lady Thatcher get out and wander around alone? Denis playfully chastises her. An assistant asks her is she is ready to begin sorting through Denis' old clothes, to decide what to donate to charity, which pieces to pass on, which pieces of clothing should just be thrown away. Yes, Denis is gone. She realizes she is a little confused and remembers back to World War II and the Blitz.
Written by Abi Morgan ("Shame") and directed by Phyllida Lloyd ("Mamma Mia!"), "The Iron Lady" suffers from the same narrative problems as the previous collaboration between the star and the director.
Frankly, I was surprised by how much of "Lady" is set in present day. It is interesting to watch Thatcher as she deals with old age, memories haunting and confusing her. Her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman) shows up and helps her prepare for a dinner party. As she helps her mother get dressed, the television shows a news story about a bombing in Afghanistan. This prompts a memory flash to a similar event early in her political career and helps to set-up the narrative style of the film.
It is fascinating to watch Streep play Thatcher, especially at this stage in her life. In the first scene, as she ambles down the street, it isn't immediately obvious we are watching the former Prime Minister. She looks like any typical old woman, scarf covering her hair, stoop in her back. When we realize it is Thatcher, we immediately feel some regret, some pity. How did one of the most powerful women in history come to this?
Streep makes Thatcher's age, mental fragility, confusion and dread a palpable thing. As she watches the story about the bombing on television, she immediately slips into Prime Minister mode and begins addressing the public. Her daughter and assistant watch with concern on their faces.
Because the film concentrates so much time on Thatcher in her later life, the filmmakers use memories as jumping points to illustrate other parts of her life. This is hardly a modern, innovative or even an engaging method of depicting a person's life story – it's been done thousands, millions of times before – but the simplicity does allow us to concentrate on the characters and story.
But "Lady" has two things working against it: The overdone narrative device and director Phyllida Law.
While the narrative device is simplistic and allows us to concentrate on the characters, it is not modern in any way and makes the film seem old-fashioned. Old-fashioned is not an adjective most filmmakers would want used to describe their film. And because the subject matter is basically a senior citizen, the old-fashioned nature of the narrative only seems amplified.
Law comes from a background of theater, opera and music videos. Her first big film "Mamma Mia!" an adaptation of the popular musical is good, but the cheap production values and penchant to use music video techniques to illustrate narrative, really bring the overall quality down. I get it. Law has experience with music videos and feels comfortable using this technique. But it doesn't mesh with the "musical" narrative of the rest of the film.
In "Lady", Thatcher remembering back to key moments in her life and career almost creates a narrative "promise" that these flashbacks will provide us with the backstory, the narrative we need and desire to get a more complete picture of the politician's life. A flashback leads to how Margaret and Denis meet. Another flashes back to when they decide to marry. But there is nothing between the two and their marriage is portrayed as a transaction. She loses her first campaign for Parliament and Denis convinces her that a married woman would stand a better chance. If this is in fact true, it doesn't paint a very romantic picture. If it isn't, what are we supposed to pick up from this? We don't get enough details or information to fill in the gaps or make other connections. Only when we watch Margaret and Denis late in their life do we realize that they are now very much in love.
Later, flashbacks lead to a scene of Margaret trying to make an impact in Parliament. Then, another scene shows two of her fellow Conservative Party members giving her coaching, grooming her (somewhat literally) to become the party leader and the PM. A flashback triggers a memory of an IRA attack that kills one of her advisors. Then, she is Prime Minister. Then, things aren't go going especially well. Then, she goes to war in the Falkland Islands. The war goes poorly until the British are victorious and everything turns around for Margaret and the Conservatives and they ride a wave of popularity.
These moments seem almost secondary. If my description of the narrative seems a bit choppy, a bit like an outline, this is an accurate reflection of the film. As Thatcher becomes extremely popular, she is shown dancing with Reagan and Nelson Mandela. This is virtually the only mention of Reagan and does nothing to illustrate their relationship. In fact, the entire sequence, as Thatcher and her party enjoy their power and popularity is basically a montage, a music video, which fails to illustrate anything of value.
At one point, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) begins to appear constantly at Thatcher's side. Later, she berates him and he turns in his resignation. We don't learn what their relationship is or why this is an important development.
The same problem plagues the character played by Richard E. Grant. At one point, someone makes a comment about Thatcher losing support and she turns and spots Michael Heseltine (Grant) looking at her suspiciously. Why are people jockeying to replace her? Who is Heseltine? Why does he want to replace the popular PM? Is she even still popular? Unfortunately, the film doesn't help us with these questions.
Broadbent and Streep work well together and they paint a portrait of a couple who have been together a long time, remembering and laughing at all of the silly memories they share. It is a good portrait of an older couple.
But we don't really learn how they get to this point. There is one brief scene showing Denis and Carol's amazement when Thatcher announces she is running to be Prime Minister. Initially, he seems very upset, but just as quickly seems fully supportive.
There also seems to be a lot of animosity between Carol and her mother, but we don't really learn why this exists.
Law seems convinced that we must know these things and this is a dangerous conceit to adopt when making a biopic. Most successful biopics concentrate on a specific period of the subject's life. By doing this, they are able to illuminate these moments and build what we hope is a memorable portrait. And most biopics are more than two hours long. "Iron Lady" runs 105 minutes and presents snippets from throughout the Prime Minister's life. Because of this, it feels like we are watching a study cheat sheet come to life. Key moments, important facts and interesting details are missing throughout.
"The Iron Lady" features another great performance from Streep, which is not served well by a haphazard screenplay, incomplete ideas and choppy filmmaking.