Friday, February 17, 2012

Film Review | The Iron Lady

Rust Never Streeps

by Thomas Delapa

Don’t stop the presses: “Meryl Streep nominated for Oscar!”

You can look it up. Hollywood’s most famous female impersonator has garnered a record 17 Academy Award acting nominations, bringing home the gold once for Best Actress. The movies’ big-name answer to Rich Little, Streep is again favored to win for her flashy but tin-plated performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

The Vassar-educated empress has no new clothes, but don’t tell that to British Film Academy voters, who—hear, hear—bowed down before Streep and crowned her with their own best actress award. The only way to keep Streep from winning another Oscar might be to cast her in the Tower of London.

With all the sterling huzzahs for Streep, you’ll only hear a few murmurs of dissent from the critical backbench. As England’s formidable Tory Prime Minister who reigned from 1979 to 1990, Streep regales us with a prime example of her clinical acting style that stays firmly on the outside of her semi-regal subject. Her Thatcher is a stew of Julia Child and Mrs. Doubtfire, less a recipe for success than a bland biopic plate of bangers and mash.

Given Streep’s queen-bee status, one could hardly expect her frothy Mamma Mia! director, Phyllida Lloyd, to limit the star’s quasi-despotic power to rule. The brittle script, by Abi Morgan, sketches out Thatcher’s life and career from the 1940s to her precipitous mental decline in the last decade, but the focus is clearly on Streep’s mannered magic act, not Maggie’s momentous life as England’s first female prime minister.

For Streep, the eyes have it, unfortunately. Her method is to cock her head, stare sternly ahead (frequently right at the camera) and impeccably deliver her feisty, high-toned lines. That may be good enough for Madam Tussauds wax museum, but on film it drips with chilly artifice. There’s nothing behind those steely eyes, certainly no heart, except for a laser-guided aim for acting trophies.

Yes, audiences will learn about Maggie’s pearl-clad race to the top of the Parliamentary heap, accessorized by her doting husband, Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent). While the film presents Thatcher as a strong-willed woman struggling against one of the most entrenched of British male bastions (“I cannot die washing a teacup!”), she also is portrayed as an imperious figure who alienated and humiliated even her most trusted advisors. Lloyd and Morgan make scant attempt to dig into the historical background, except to drop in chintzy newsreel footage of the era, from labor riots to the short-lived 1982 Falklands War that was to Thatcher what the picayune Grenada invasion was to her conservative White House counterpart, Ronald Reagan.

Had, say, Judi Dench or Helen Mirren been elected for this plum part (if only), I doubt the press and the public would have acted like such peons as they’ve done for Meryl the Great. In The Queen, Mirren submerged herself in the role of Elizabeth II; Streep steadfastly clings to the surface for dear life, risking nothing, fabricating her performance with a cabinet of tics and mannerisms. Attention getting, to be sure, but a near-royal bore.


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