The Iron Lady (2011)


Meryl Streep’s acting here is among her best, which means that her genius shows, as evidenced by her being for you “Margaret Thatcher” throughout the movie and never Meryl Streep, though that simplistic distinction cannot be much of an accounting for Streep’s great talent for portrayal. I think she is the best movie actor of the past several decades; you believe she can play many female roles most probably better than any other actress. Given her recent interview with Morley Safer on 60 Minutes (the questions were poor) she, like so many other geniuses, cannot explain her art. The smartest people in the coming future analysis of the mind and emotions–“the last frontier”– may never do so. It’s the old question: What is creativity?

But obviously we can recognize it.

Shouldn’t you therefore see The Iron Lady?

Perhaps. If you are inclined to see great performances, even compromised ones.

Schlock. n. Something, such as merchandise or literature, that is inferior or shoddy.

The Iron Lady is schlock drama. What is especially inferior drama? In these times it seems often to be drama in which there is little chance for an interesting, suspenseful conflict of forces because the chief story is one of impersonal affliction, the protagonist a victim. The medical melodrama. The story of disease. The End is in sight from the Beginning.

The specific pandering to the great Public munching popcorn and sniffling? If it weeps, it keeps. (A cousin to: If it bleeds, it leads.)

Schadenfreude. n. Enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others.

I think we might add here “cheap thrills” and extend that idea to the production side of today’s entertainment as well as to its audience. Not much talent, money, original scripting or appreciative effort needed here. Moguls and bean counters love this stuff.

So we have the director, Phyllida Lloyd, and the young screenwriter, Abi Morgan, sending up a story about Thatcher and Thatcherism that is really about dementia, aging, and, I think, ultimately very much about leveling. Eminences put on their trousers or pantsuits one leg at a time.

But the leveling ploy isn’t the main one. It’s cheap thrills. Make that cheap and easy thrills.

And you as the maker of this stuff can shed any guilt you may feel (that guilt, I am sure, improbable). The rationale? Well, everyone’s doing affliction drama; it’s what the audience wants. In fact, we’re meeting with Acme Polling reps in the conference room at 10 this morning to review all the latest focus group results and ratings surveys. What will that presentation “message” us? Cover your tracks by giving your audience false pity. Make that “pity.”  “Pity” obscures the guilt.  And, besides, all the studios are doing it. I mean, did you read in The Wall Street Journal today about the big Indie movie coming this summer about the guy in an iron lung who doesn’t want to be a virgin? Lets see Dr. Phil and Oprah top that!

Accordingly: The Iron Lady opens with Thatcher suffering dementia. Abi Morgan frames the Thatcher story as the Iron Lady Losing It. Sniffle, sniffle.

Flashbacks tell the weepy story with little interruption. Oh, there are dutiful quick brush strokes about Thatcher’s politics and their history. The emphasis in these brief obligatory nods to Thatcher’s actual history is on the Strong Heroine, but that strength of Thatcher is more asserted than dramatized: the Devil is in the details of Thatcher’s sallies forth to alter British and international politics, and that devil is to be avoided as much as possible by the Abi Morgans practicing Contemporary Screenwriting 101.

The best moments in this gray crawl are those of the courtship of Margaret and Denis. But Morgan tries hurriedly to summarize much of it in a single scene that I believe Paddy Chayevsky would have sneered isn’t sufficient for that drama: far too short of a story.

I didn’t take to Thatcherism; neither did a substantial number of others, and I think there is a minor theme here of ideological belittling in The Iron Lady.  So, naturally, some conservatives deride and descry the movie.  But I think the ideological aspect here is a misplaced argument. Abi knows that probably most of her audience doesn’t know (supply word) about Thatcher. Was she the only female crew member on the Pinto? Was her picture on the Cheerios box at one time?

In short, Abi, no doubt cheered on by Phyllida and the studio suits, met the challenge of creating an affliction drama for which the audience needn’t know nearly anything about Thatcher. Poor Streep hasn’t any real chance of dramatizing Thatcherism–what it was and why it came to be–which no matter your political views ought to be crucial in a biopic of Margaret Thatcher.

But watching Streep solve the acting problem in an awful vehicle is fascinating. I don’t think anyone could do it better. She’s too savvy even for Abi.

It’s just too bad she didn’t have a story by Preston Sturges or Robert Towne in which to shine.