Well, there’s good news and bad news when it comes to the latest from Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd. The downside is that, apart from a typically spot-on transmogrification courtesy of Meryl Streep, there isn’t an awful lot to recommend this by-the-numbers biopic. On the upside, Pierce Brosnan doesn’t sing a note!
I can think of numerous filmmakers well suited to the task of encapsulating Margaret Thatcher’s pioneering, polarizing, often borderline quixotic life and career. I can think of few whose résumés suggest they’d be more foolhardy to try than Lloyd. And I don’t say that simply because the director previously served up such a half-baked big-screen confection. I say it because her background is in the British theater. Directing plays and movies, obviously, are two very different things.
In most respects, The Iron Lady is about as boilerplate as movie portraits get. As though ticking off points on a checklist, Lloyd introduces us to the plucky grocer’s daughter who announces to her fiancé that she “cannot die washing a teacup”; fast-forwards to her election to Parliament in 1959; and, mere moments later, presents her historic election as prime minister — along the way pausing for elocution lessons and a makeover. The highlights of Thatcher’s 11-plus years in office are touched on in an equally cursory fashion or passed over altogether.
What’s the rush? As we discover, screenwriter Abi Morgan is less interested in Thatcher the world leader than she is in Thatcher the dotty shut-in. A surprisingly substantial chunk of the picture’s 105-minute running time is devoted to a depiction of its subject more or less in the present day. It’s unclear where Morgan got the information on which these scenes are based. But, unless she’s been peeping through windows, it would seem we have a case of fantasy masquerading as fact.
Which can be a perfectly legitimate cinematic device. My sense, though, is that viewers of The Iron Lady will buy their tickets in the belief that they’ll be watching a historically accurate account of its subject’s life, not a blend of history and fiction. There’s little doubt that the sequences in which the eightysomething Thatcher dodders about her home in a bathrobe and chats with her long-deceased husband, Denis (the effortlessly genial Jim Broadbent), are the most affecting in the film. Thatcher has suffered from Alzheimer’s since 2000 and survived a series of ministrokes: All that is a matter of record. Her doing crosswords with her dead mate, I’m guessing, is something the writer threw in to pump up the pathos.
Yes, the contrast between the defiant, indefatigable PM and the frail, confused old woman is poignant (and, yes, we observe her washing a teacup in old age … somehow we knew that was coming). But there’s also something about this approach that’s undeniably questionable. A bit disingenuous, even. Can you imagine a similar project with, say, Ronald Reagan as its subject? What does it say about our culture that portraying a diminished male power figure is unthinkable, while an enfeebled female is considered heart-tugging Oscar bait?
Rest assured, such questions are easy to back-burner while Streep does her thing. She nails her character at every stage of Thatcher’s personal evolution, and the process is mesmerizing to witness. At this point, hers is a talent all too readily taken for granted. In the end, Lloyd’s chronicle of England’s first and only female prime minister perhaps succeeds most notably as a reminder of why the actress continues to reign as the cinema’s leading lady.