What is the purpose of a biography or a biopic? It has to be to provide insight into the life of the person the work examines. To reflect on the life, to educate about the life, to see the effect the individual had (or not) on others and maybe to teach us a bit about ourselves. In that respect, whatever else it may have going for it, The Iron Lady is a failure.
Phyllida Lloyd’s direction of Abi Morgan’s screenplay provides little to no insight into who Margaret Thatcher is as a person. We are given that she was a wife, a mother, the daughter of a grocer, a conservative, and the leader of her country for more than 10 years. But, that’s really it. Meryl Streep, of course, won several awards, including an Oscar, for her portrayal of Thatcher, but that seems as much due to Streep’s ability to play a doddering old woman with complete believability as much as anything.
It feels as though it is no longer in fashion to do a straight-up tale of someone’s life—the person was born; raised; did x, y, and z as an adult; and passed away (or not)—or at least some portion of that linear story. This tale of Thatcher begins with her as an elderly woman in 2008 and has her constantly remembering various bits and pieces of her life, or discussing said bits and pieces with her deceased husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent).
Much of the film, in fact, has an elderly Thatcher talking to her deceased husband. She is aware that he is dead and not really there (generally anyway), but has the conversations nonetheless. Should one in the audience enter the movie be unaware of much of Thatcher and her life, leaving the film, their biggest question will be if the former Prime Minister in fact has some sort of dementia or if that was just a convenient way for the tale to be told. To leave the audience wondering about Thatcher’s mental state in her old age can’t be the intent of the film, but it certainly is the result.
Yet, that’s exactly where we end up. We get that Thatcher came to power during some sort of issue with union workers striking. We get that she continued to fight against unions. We get that she went to war in the Falklands. We get that she made many people rich, helped end Communism, and had an strained relationship with her children. The way the tale is told we get a whole bunch of half-facts (why were the garbage collectors on strike? what government run operations did she privatize? did her father and her being a woman shape every belief she has ever held?). With all apologies, so much time is spent with her fussing about her home that too little is left for an examination of who she was as a person and the head of government.
On the other side of things, Meryl Streep is wonderful in the movie. If one didn’t know in advance that Streep was playing Thatcher, it would be impossible to figure it out by watching. However, that doesn’t make for a great movie, particularly when Streep’s finest in-character moments are all part of what most films would have had as an epilogue, or at the very least a frame to the main story. Streep plays the 2008 Thatcher brilliantly, but the 2008 Thatcher could be nearly any elderly woman with dementia who remembers bits and pieces of her life… if she is in fact really remembering stuff.
The heavy reliance on Thatcher’s dementia calls into question every single flashback she has. If the film is wrong about facts, is it purposefully getting things wrong because that’s the way Thatcher would have the story told? Is the film getting things wrong because the research is bad? Is it getting things wrong because it makes for a better story? Are we given no clear look at any character or event purposefully as we’re seeing everything through the eyes of someone with dementia or is it simply because the film couldn’t be bothered to present things more fully?
It feels like poor sleight of hand – you can’t assail the facts of Lloyd and Morgan’s depiction of Thatcher’s career (nor the lack of clarity) because you never know what to believe. That scene where they didn’t bother to give the full story on moment x or y? Yes, that’s because it was unimportant to Thatcher. It’s because in 2008 she didn’t remember. It’s because we, the filmmakers, didn’t feel it to be important. It’s because… it’s because… it’s because.
Put another way, The Iron Lady is the biopic equivalent of a film where they reveal just before the credits that it was all just dream – all those questions you have and details about events you want, you can’t have them because it was all just a dream and as we all know dreams don’t make sense.
In terms of the film’s technical aspects, Lloyd has combined her original footage with some news footage to provide an added sense of authenticity. Consequently, what you get on the visuals isn’t entirely consistent. The new stuff (which is most of the film) looks very good, with ample definition, good blacks, and some colors (particularly some of Thatcher’s blue dresses) that really pop off the screen. The old stuff suffers from being older, but not to the detriment of the movie, it really does help set the period in a film which otherwise fails to do so. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is not quite as good. For a film where so much revolves around the dialogue, it is jarring and terribly incongruous when a bit of music (generally used to help set the time period) plays – the mix is not a good one with music blaring at a far greater volume than dialogue. The surrounds don’t come into play all that often, but are used effectively to set location, and while everything is crisp and clear, the need to sit with the remote and jockey the volume is unfortunate.
Also unfortunate are the Blu-ray extras. The movie comes with a DVD and digital copy, as well as some behind the scenes pieces. The first of these, which runs approximately 12 minutes, is actually rather interesting and details how the film was made, going into several different areas. Smaller behind-the-scenes featurettes choose single subjects (Streep, Broadbent, filming in the House of Commons) and have a horrible tendency to recycle material used in that longer piece. After watching the 12 minute piece, watching the shorter ones feels like watching a repeat.
Margaret Thatcher lived an incredible life and ran one of the most powerful governments in the world for more than a decade. Telling her tale can’t need to be as boring as The Iron Lady makes it out. I appreciate the desire to not simply go from Thatcher as a child thru to adulthood and then old age, but there has to be a better way to tell the story than as a series of jumbled flashbacks.