The Iron Lady (2011) ☆☆(2/4) : Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher – and what else?

I remember the bland biographies of famous historical figures I read from time to time during my innocent childhood. Written for inspiring young elementary school kids like me, they were usually packaged together and then sold to the good-intentioned parents like mine. They occupied a considerable space on my bookshelves, and I read them at least three or four times, but I got soon bored by their mediocre enumeration of what and when happened during the lifetime of the people like Einstein or Churchill. As a matter of fact, I was not sad when my parents threw them away because my focus was already moved to the science books – and then English and Korean literature later.

Even with a good performance at the center of the story, “The Iron Lady” is unfortunately as bland as them. While covering so many things that occurred during the life of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, its unclear tone uncannily reminded me how those biographies in my childhood years were as shallow as, say, 40 pages including the diverse illustrations which impressed me more than the monochromatic texts themselves. One thing happens to him/her in these books, and then, one or two pages after, the other thing happens; one thing happens to Thatcher in this film, and then the other thing happens within 10 minutes. And it goes on and on.

That is certainly not the fault of Meryl Streep, who has always tried her best 100%(or more) whatever characters she accepted to play. When I began to love movies during my elementary school years, she was barely a name of some great film actress to me, but her immense talent had suddenly come upon to me during the end of my undergraduate years in the 2000s. Her terrific performances in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”(1981), “Sophie’s Choice”(1982), and “Silkwood”(1983) completely knocked me out, and I sort of understood why she has not gotten the third Oscar yet. Well, how can she surpass “Sophie’s Choice”, which features one of the great performances not only in her career but also in the film history?

Shortly after impressing me with her serious movies from the 1980s, she surprised me and others with the second breakthrough in her career through Spike Jones’ smart delightful comedy “Adaptation”(2002), for which she got the recording-breaking 13th Oscar nomination. She then moved on while having more fun ever than before along with additional Oscar nominations. She showed she could sing and dance “Momma Mia!”(2008) while giving another terrific powerhouse performance in “Doubt”(2008). She was inarguably the best thing in “The Devil Wears Prada”(2006) and “Julie & Julia”(2009), and I enjoyed her performances in spite of my reservations toward both imperfect movies.

I think I have said too much about her in this review, but, people, I cannot help it, because “The Iron Lady” gives a very little to Streep to work with and there is nothing much to talk about the movie itself accordingly. Sure, Streep does not disappoint us; right from the point when its production still photos came out, we predicted that she would perfectly nail the role regardless of whether the film would be bad or not. Its trailer re-confirmed our notion while she was gaining the buzz for another recording-breaking Oscar nomination, and, what do you know, she does received it as a serious contender along with several awards including recent BAFTA Best Actress award.

Streep is all ready for her show in the film. She rises to the occasions whenever supposedly big scenes are handed to her, but the people behind the camera do not seem to go along with that. Thatcher still remains as a famous political figure admired or hated by British people for many reasons as shown in the film, so it is understandable that the movie takes a neutral position, but the movie does a worse thing than taking sides – it does not express any opinions or insights on this strong-willed, authoritative woman who rose in the world filled with the men who looked down on her. I only saw her through the world news on TV, but she was distinctive enough to be stored in my childhood memory. Compared to that, the movie did not leave much impression although Streep does an expert impersonation of Thatcher.

The screenplay by Abi Morgan is more or less than the scrapbook of Thatcher’s crucial moments in her life, which are freely reminisced by an old, senile Thatcher in her later years. The movie looks through them with no clear focus or direction. Even before we get interested in one part, the movie quickly moves on to the next stage of Thatcher’s life along with the temporal dragging stop at old Thatcher’s part, and this pattern frustratingly continues throughout the film. The director Phyllida Lloyd tries to speed up the pace with the quick montages of TV news and Thatcher pushing her decisions all the way, but we are left with nothing to think about except watching what many of us have already known. There are threats from IRA, and then there is her harsh decision to close the mines which would leave many workers angered and unemployed, and then there is the Falklands War, which, according to what the film presents to us, did not have much of strategic advantages except it was nice as the show of force for her fellow British people. And then the Cold War is over, and then, well, she is forced to resign.

I do not mind such a storytelling method a little disorienting like that. In another scrapbook biopic film like “La Vie en Rose”(2007), there was enough space for the emotional contents to flesh out its three-dimensional character and hold the fragmented pieces together. However, in case of “The Iron Lady”, while the facts are crammed into less than 2 hours of incoherence, there is not anything besides them to present, and that is not enough to support Streep’s performance. In one scene, Streep is left alone in the meeting room after the other officials left out of the room, and she looks blankly a little above the camera. I knew she was completely in her character, but I personally wondered whether she searched for any direction she could find right at that moment.

The performers playing supporting characters are also as underutilized as Streep herself. Jim Broadbent is playing a dotty, dutiful husband not so far from his Oscar-winning turn in “Iris”(2001). Whether he complains to her or tries to cheer her up, he always stands by her even after he passed away; his character is a pure storytelling device for inducing her to remember her good or bad days. As the younger version of Thatcher, Alexandra Roach deserves better as much as her counterpart. Maybe you can find several recognizable actors like Olivia Colman and Richard E. Grant, but they quickly come in and then quickly come out as the movie is busying itself with running along its facts and chronology.

“The Iron Lady” is a tepid biopic with a plenty of wasted potentials. There is nothing new in it, and it does not even present its subject compellingly. Though Streep is good to watch, the movie sadly fails to elevate her diligent work to the next level while not making any choice. Sometimes it hesitates about whether it should be drama or comedy, so her performance frequently reminds me of her previous performance as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia”(2009). You know that something is wrong with a biopic film if its real-life figure unintentionally makes you recall other one a lot.

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