The Academy Awards has a really annoying habit of awarding Oscars to filmmakers and actors/actresses based on their “career” rather than the particular film they’ve been nominated for. As much I love the original True Grit, I would never say it was one of John Wayne’s best performances and I don’t think he gave half the performance of Dustin Hoffman or Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. Similarly, The Departed is a really fun crime film but it’s towards the bottom of Scorsese’s body of work and it wasn’t nearly as exceptional as Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. I could go on with lists like these all day. I truly believe that Meryl Streep might be the greatest actress of all time, but her third Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady has to be one of the biggest screw-ups since someone thought it was a good idea to nominate Sandra Bullock for Best Actress (let alone let her win). Let there be no mistakes, Meryl Streep gives another phenomenal performance in this film. She’s the greatest actress of her age, but there were two far more astonishing and fiery performances from breakthrough actresses (Viola Davis and Rooney Mara) that deserved this award more. Instead, the Academy chose yet again to honor someone’s career rather than the actual best from that year. It doesn’t help that this film is historical biopic disaster but more on that later.
The film shuttles back and forth between the present (I was very shocked to learn that Margaret Thatcher was still alive. She’s only 86.) and Thatcher’s (Meryl Streep’s) younger days both before joining Parliament and her eventual reign as England’s first female Prime Minister. In the modern day, Thatcher is in the grips of dementia, suffering from hallucinations of her long dead husband Dennis (Harry Potter’s Jim Broadbent in the present, Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd in the past) and unable to tell when or where she is or remember the whereabouts of her estranged son. Over the course of a troubled day where she is giving away her husband’s belongings and finds herself reminiscing over the many years she devoted to public service and to the fierce battles she waged against the entrenched forces controlling the government. Whether it was breaking the back of Britain’s labor unions, declaring war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, or deregulating virtually every major industry in England, Thatcher left a legacy of legislative accomplishments (whether they are good or terribly evil is up for you to decide) that are all she has to comfort in her old age and frazzled mental state.
I realize I spent my entire opening paragraph attacking the Academy’s decision to award the Best Actress honors to Meryl Streep, but regardless, she was as excellent as she’s ever been in this role. I couldn’t get a handle on where the filmmaker’s political loyalties lie (which is perhaps why I felt the film was such a muddled mess with its blurry and fleeting description of historical events with no real context or statement) but Streep did her damnedest to make Thatcher as sympathetic a figure as possible. While I still believe that her makeup did a significant portion of her acting in the sequences where she was an old woman (the film’s Best Makeup Oscar was well-deserved), there was an incredible amount of nuance to her performance. She showed the nastier sides of Thatcher (her ambition, her pride, her lack of tact), but we also saw her as a loving wife and as a frail, vulnerable old woman as opposed to the image of the “iron lady” that is so popular in the modern retellings of her legacy. Streep will be (and almost already is) one of the legends of the big screen that will be uttered in the same breath as Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe (in terms of cultural impact. All of those actresses are infinitely better than Monroe). If anyone doubted her ability to project the fierceness and toughness that Thatcher possessed, they obviously weren’t familiar with Streep’s career. However, what was most impressive was her ability to add in all of Thatcher’s weaknesses so naturally and in such an understated manner among side her most glaring features.
However, as great as Streep was, the film’s script is a terrible mess. I appreciate the attempts to humanize Margaret Thatcher by showing her as the mentally deteriorating old woman she’s become, but it causes the meditations on her political legacy to be weak and without substance. I’m going to betray my own political leanings here when I say that I think Margaret Thatcher was one of the most despicable figures of the post WW II world (along with her buddy Ronald Reagan), and she did more to set England on the road to fascism than the threat of Hitler ever did (Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta was largely a response to “Thatcherism”). So, how does the film handle the controversial political legacy of one of England’s most divisive figures? It treats them as pat transitional scenes with little thought towards the effects that her heavy-handed political decision making ultimately caused. The film makes no judgments on her decisions, only the resoluteness and obstinancy with which she made them. I just don’t think you can make a film about Margaret Thatcher and not have it make an ultimate statement about her political legacy one way or the other. This film took the easiest way out when discussing her achievements, and for all history buffs and political junkies, it will obviously suffer for it. I can’t even imagine that Thatcher’s admirers will enjoy the way the film has almost nothing to say (besides repeating historical facts) about her time at 10 Downing Street.
Besides Streep’s virtuoso performance, the only other thing the film had going for it was the elements of surrealism that creeped in when we witnessed the elderly Thatcher at the lowest depths of her dementia. It added a stylistic touch that at times made up for the dryness of the storytelling. At the end of the day though, this film was a dud, and if the Iron Lady herself still had the mental faculties to see this film, I can’t imagine she’d appreciate the weak picture it painted of her (the film’s weaknesses not her own). I can only recommend it to the most stalwart Meryl Streep fans and to those who take it upon themselves to see the year’s culturally relevant films (Meryl Streep’s Oscar win makes it one such film). Everyone else can give this tepid and overwrought biopic a pass.
Final Score: C+