A glossily shot and dramatically embellished biopic starring an acclaimed actor playing one of the previous century’s most powerful political figures, timed to be released in the thick of awards season scuttlebutt…
This is what industry commentators warily dub “Oscar bait” — productions that appear to be engineered with one fundamental motivation in mind: to collect a trophy case of awards from the film industry’s most coveted annual love-ins.
Appearing in a cameo role in The Extras, Kate Winslet, playing an Oscar-hungry version of herself, explained to Ricky Gervais why she was acting in a film about the Holocaust: “It’s like, how many have there been? We get it. It was grim. Move on. I’m doing it because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust you’re guaranteed an Oscar.”
And if you do a big budget studio film in which you play a legendary politician, you have a great deal more than a fighting chance.
One hopes and assumes the always-reliable Meryl Streep signed onto the role of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady for the right reasons – namely, to provide Britain’s steely-eyed political matriarch the required gravitas. But there is no dulling the question marks that linger like corrosive clouds over director Phyllida Lloyd’s soulless historical re-imagining, cold and homogenized like the yoghurt and milk in its protagonist’s refrigerator.
Lloyd does nothing to convince us her film is after anything less than all-out Oscars glory. The Iron Lady is a Chasers sketch waiting to happen: how to make an Academy Award winning movie 101. Oh wait, they’ve already done it. And their spoof trailer bears some uneasy similarities.
Lloyd spends an inordinate amount of time imagining Thatcher as an old batty lady fending off mental illness and slowly losing her marbles, feeding Streep scene after scene of quivering lips, confused expressions and the required manifestation of stubbornness mixed with repressed fragility. When we meet an over-the-hill 86-year-old Thatcher she tunes out of conversations, forgets names and dates and hallucinates visions of her late husband (played by Jim Broadbent).
The story rewinds to the days before Thatcher came to power and then her time in the UK’s number one job. The film remains, however, more interested in delusional Thatcher than leader Thatcher and barely aspires to shine a light on what was running through her mind when she made difficult decisions, from epic union battles to Britain’s involvement in the Falkands War.
The essence of Thatcher’s character — when she isn’t in repressed fragility mode — boils down to two words emblazoned on proverbial knuckle-busters: tough+love, and the audience are mercilessly bludgeoned across the face with it.
Partisan political wonks beware: viewing The Iron Lady from either a Right or Left perspective will make an unsatisfying experience from both POVs. People on the Left will see a monster dressed up as a warrior of virtue courageously doing what she believes is right, with scenes of protestors picketing and banging against her car half-heartedly thrown in for “balance.” Thatcher fans will see a women who makes brutal decisions that are inadequately explained and a film more interested in showing her frailties than her strengths.
How did Thatcher sway her party to let her lead? How did she convince the population to vote for her? What might she have thought of herself, when her head hit the pillow after a tumultuous day in politics? Did she have regrets? Unfilled ambitions?
The film barely pretends to care. Though its affection for its protagonist is striking, The Iron Lady showcases Thatcher’s most unenviable achievement – going mad – and uses it to colour the ink of her stamp on history. Not in a hard-hitting sense but a “thank gosh, she’s lovely after all.”
It’s hard to tell whether Lloyd is more infatuated with Streep or Thatcher, but ultimately it’s Streep by a powdered nose. The film goes to obscene lengths to remind us this is a Streep fest, from its innumerable makeup-caked close-ups to a laughable technique in which Lloyd plays voice over audio of her star speaking over footage of her mouth not moving. It’s Jackson-esque in its ego-stroking. With help from the editing room, MJ perfected, in songs like Smooth Criminal, the tactic of employing himself as his own back-up singer.
At the end of the film, in case you forgot who you’ve been looking at the whole time, whose tough+love+repressed+fragility face has been leaking with Oscar bait emotion, two words appear at the end of The Iron Lady spelling out — in large elegiac letters — Meryl Streep. They may as well have added “For Your Consideration.”
The Iron Lady’s Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2011.