30 December 2011

OH MAGGIE, I WISHED I'D NEVER SEEN YOUR FACE

Firstly, The Iron Lady is historically illiterate to a degree that shouldn't be allowed for a movie dramatising events that happened less than three decades ago, and I suspect that's true regardless of whether you're a fan of contentious and controversial Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or if like me you regard her as one of the most loathsome heads of a democratic state of the 20th Century. Having a political opinion on The Iron Lady is probably inevitable, but there's absolutely no point to it: the woman we see onscreen is Thatcher to roughly the same degree that the garrulous British gentleman in The Last Station is Leo Tolstoy, and considerably less than the turgid and hideously reductive 1944 Wilson (one of the all-time great shitty biopics) is about the 28th U.S. President.

Mostly, the film is designed to showcase Meryl Streep in one those "mimic + an accent" roles that she does better than anybody else in the history of film acting, in lieu of taking interesting parts in intelligent movies. Here, she gets to play a determined woman whose rise to power is pushed back at every step of the way by sexist men on all sides of the political spectrum, and who dealt with this by digging her heels in and adopting a scorched-earth "my way or the highway!" approach to everything in the whole world but especially running a country. The film absolutely adores her for this: I just said that bringing politics in was stupid, but I don't think it takes politics to say that a movie which suggests that the right way to lead a world power is by screaming "FUCK YOU, I'M THE PEE-EM" every time anyone even mentions that other people have differing opinions is a movie with a faintly odious concept of how the world should work.

So that takes care of the what that Streep gets to play. The how, now that must have been even more exciting than the idea of playing Thatcher as a woman of great fortitude in a man's world: first, the role takes place over several decades, meaning Streep gets to play a woman from middle age to elderly decrepitude, during the last of which she is aided considerably by some of the swellest old-age makeup that I have ever seen, though perhaps it just seems that way because it's not so silent-horror-movie as the terrible things that happened in J. Edgar (it is a disappointment to all that the filmmakers elected not to have Streep also play the young woman version of Thatcher in a further cloud of latex, but at any rate that part went to Alexandra Roach, who is a bit colorless but no more so than the role insists that she be). Plus, not only does Streep get to do an English accent, the character arc involves her transitioning from one accent to another, much posher and more authoritative, one. Which must have been catnip to the noted chameleon, who has not played a British character in a quarter of a century, unless I have forgotten something.

Whatever accolades usually accrue to Streep, hold true here; myself, I find her mechanical precision tiring and much prefer her comic turns (e.g. Julie & Julia), especially the ones spiced with a little bitterness (e.g. The Devil Wears Prada) to be considerably more satisfying then the really intense, dramatic ones. So you'll be getting no "holy heck, Meryl Streep is amazing and it's like I was looking Margaret Thatcher right in the face!" here. What is certainly true, Streep is the best thing about The Iron Lady by a gargantuan margin; the only good or even tolerable thing in a movie that is mostly comprised of nothing but absolutely bizarre structural choices married to hallucinatory direction that has proceeded from the notion that the right way to deal with Abi Morgan's weird script is to run screaming into the abyss of madness. The film starts in the late 2000s, when Thatcher is starting to run headlong into senility, and is visited by the apparition of her dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), who is maybe a ghost and maybe just the confused interjection of an old woman; that this point is even slightly unclear has less to do with any sort of desire to achieve character study through ambiguity, than with director Phyllida Lloyd's psychotic behavior with the camera.

Ah, Phyllida Lloyd! Her last and only film, you may remember, was Mamma Mia! which also starred Streep (in one of the worst performances of her entire career), and which was a hatchet job of the first order, as though Lloyd had decided that she didn't want to be bothered with copying things other directors had already done and so set herself to the task of reinventing film grammar from the ground up, resulting in an uninterrupted string of all the wrong decisions and some of the worst-staged musical numbers in living memory. The Iron Lady, I am staggered to report, is worse still than Mamma Mia!. At least that film didn't try to incorporate newsreel footage with the drunken abandon of The Iron Lady; it didn't whirl through camera set-ups like a Michael Bay action movie set in the musty halls of Parliament; it did have unmotivated slow-motion all over the place, but The Iron Lady makes a kind of abstract poetry of dropping into slow-mo whenever the hell Lloyd feels like and screw it if the results make absolutely no sense.

Then there is the matter of Ghost Denis, played with plummy wretchedness by a never-worse Broadbent - and who can blame him, really, when the part is this maddeningly ill-written? Functionally, Denis is there to challenge Dotty Ol' Maggie into remembering her past, raising her defenses when she's confronted with the reality that two decades after the political shenanigans that took her from power, she's remembered with virtually no love, and some outright hatred, by most of the British populace. He is the voice of her proud past, the part of her that remains steadfast in her belief that she was right - the iron of the title. There's nothing inherently wrong with it conceptually, though it smacks of Paul Bettany in A Beautiful Mind or Dustin Hoffman in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, two films that are not generally good things to call to mind. In fact, I take it back, it is inherently wrong conceptually, and it's made worse by Broadbent's tremendous lack of interest in doing anything with it, and worse still by Lloyd's dumbfounding treatment of Denis's peek-a-boo antics, like the antagonists in the Micky Mouse short Lonesome Ghosts only in a serious drama. There is a sequence in which Thatcher turns on all the electric appliances in her house to drown out the sound of Denis's voice, with the soundtrack duly cranked up to 11, as Streep lumbers about with technically flawless approximations of how old people lumber about, and everything about it made my soul die.

Next to all of its tremendous artistic shortcomings and various terrible conceptual ideas, the film's superficial psychology is practically restful: the reduction of Margaret Thatcher to a strong-willed grocer's daughter who wins everything and then loses track of it through nascent paranoia has nothing interesting to say about the historical woman, her cinematic doppelgänger, or the 1980s in Great Britain, and compared to the flailing about of the movie proper, its thematic shortcomings just seem like business as usual for awards-season biopics. It's a bit sad to say that the best parts of the movie are the ones that leave it as a wretchedly anonymous example of one of the most inherently unlikable genres in modern cinema, but that's the special Phyllida Lloyd flair for you, I guess: so dazzlingly incompetent and incomprehensible that mediocrity is a relief.

4/10

7 comments:

gary garcia said...

hmm i found this to be a mean critique. ok you don't like maggie, or the director. and meryl whom you find too mechanical. i guess we are all entitled to our opinions. anyway, i'll still watch the film. this one is just too poisonous to take seriously.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

You were just waiting for a chance to use that title, weren't you? Can't blame you, though. It's pretty much perfect.

TheConciseStatement said...

"if like me you regard her as one of the most loathsome heads of a democratic state of the 20th Century"

Heh, heh, Tim! You're my kind of guy! I said to myself the very first time I read the news they were making a film about 'The Milk Snatcher' that it was very simple for me : if it's a character assassination I'm in, and if it even makes her out as mildly sympathetic I want nothing to do with it.

Suffice it to say - I have not seen this film.

RickR said...

I just can't get past the idiocy of that poster design.

Janice said...

Tim I've not seen either film, have no wish to, but reading this review has been the purest pleasure to read.

I totally agree with your early point - why is Meryl Streep "the best living film actress blah blah blah" making such awful films, and WHY do we keep rewarding her for it?

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I don't think the movie agreed with her stubbornness as right, per se. I, and those I saw it with, thought that it was a portrait of a woman who did rise against the odds, yes, but then let the monster out, a stubborn, power-hungry, monster who had to be ousted, just as she had ousted her predecessor, a woman so alienated from those around her -- not just by her illness, but her lack of warmth for anyone else -- that she is left to the very domestic duties she sought to escape.

Of course, this does not mean that the movie is well-made, and while Lloyd'd choices worked for me, I can certainly understand why the constant montages of slow-mo walking and unsynched dialogue would get tiresome. W.E. did much the same thing, and it drove me crazy. Perhaps those ten extra minutes to its running time was just enough...

Mind, I don't know much about this period of history at all, and I kept feeling the movie might have worked better for me if I had known *something*, since it is scant on detail and context. But I do find it interesting that those who despise Thatcher find the movie respectful, and those of us for whom the movie is an introduction find it scathing.

Neil Fulwood said...

Gary Garcia - starting a comment "hmm i found this to be a mean critique" is all well and good. Ending it "i'll still watch the film" - i.e. admitting that you haven't even seen it yet - is kind of an intellectual own-goal. Tim has and is therefore qualified to offer his opinion. By the way, e e cummings says hi.