© 2011 Ray Wong
Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a controversial public figure. And in many ways, The Iron Lady may be a controversial film as we wonder how truthful it is with regard to Thatcher's private and public lives.
Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), in her twilight years, reflects on her life as one of Britain's most famous women and a borderline senile private citizen. Thatcher often hallucinates about her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who passed away years ago. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) tries to take care of her, but Thatcher refuses. It seems that not only does she live as if her husband's still alive, but she's stuck in the past.
As an ambitious young woman (Alexandra Roach), Margaret Roberts' passion is in politics, even though it's traditionally a men's arena. This ambition and a singleminded drive eventually gets her into the parliament and one of the most active members of the conservative party. Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd) marries her despite her strong personality and ambition.
Eventually, Thatcher decides to run for Prime Minister even though she doesn't think she can win. Her advisors think otherwise. She changes her public image and succeeds in winning, thus starting her long, tumulus run as the PM. Meanwhile, her career is putting strain in her relationship with her family.
Meryl Streep (It's Complicated) can't seem to do wrong (well, except for a few stinkers here and there throughout her stellar career). Once again, she plays one of the world's most recognizable women, and this time, it's a total triumph. Not only does she physically resemble the Iron Lady, but she's succeeded in channeling Thatcher in spirit as well. She successfully portrays the strong outer-self of Thatcher, the inner vulnerability, and her love and devotion, despite her neglect, to her family.
Jim Broadbent (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) is also fantastic as Denis Thatcher, her devoted husband who loves her even as she neglects him and their children. He is the rock, and Broadbent's performance and chemistry with Streep are the heart of the story. Olivia Colman (Hot Fuzz) is touching as Thatcher's daughter Carol. Alexandra Roach (Private Peaceful) plays young Margaret with vim and sensibility, while Harry Lloyd (Jane Eyre) is somewhat goofy as young Denis but matches the playful personality of Broadbent's portrayal.
Written by Abi Morgan (Brick Lane), the screenplay has a traditional structure that weaves the frame story (with old Thatcher) with episodic flashbacks of her life. In fact, the same structure is used in J. Edgar. While there's no way to compress Thatcher's life and achievements (and falls) in such a short time, Morgan is able to pick out some key events to emphasize Thatcher's personality, and professional as well as personal conflicts. Unfortunately, the episodic approach does strip away some of their impact, leaving us with a feeling of surface-scratching. It would have been more effective with the frame story is kept to the minimum while we explore her younger life more fully.
Meanwhile, the frame story of older Thatcher doesn't have much of a plot, and it feels somewhat repetitive as she hallucinates about her husband and then reminisce about her past. That said, the relationship between Thatcher and her husband is so strong that it allows great emotions, which lead to a poignant moment at the end when Thatcher must learn to let go.
Director Phyllida Lloyd (Macbeth) knows where the heart of the story and lingers, perhaps a bit too long, on that part. Yet she is able to weave the arc with flashbacks in an effective way, revealing Thatcher's career and ambition against her personal life and vulnerabilities. The production is handsome. The costumes are fine, and the makeup -- especially that of Streep -- is excellent.
The Iron Lady is a solid but flawed biopic. It has heart and real emotions, but somewhat disjointed in the storytelling and too heavy on the present instead of the past. It almost feels like a love story in disguise. Biopics are difficult to do well, and this movie is no exception. Still, it has enough emotions to melt even the iron hearts; it's not a bad thing.
Stars: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Abi Morgan
Distributor: Weinstein Co.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity
Running Time: 105 minutes
Script - 7
Performance - 9
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 8
Total - 7.5 out of 10.0