[Screen It]


(2011) (Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent) (PG-13)

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Drama: As former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enters the latter stages of her life and imagines still interacting with her late husband, we see highlights of her life and political activity.
It's the present day and Margaret Thatcher (MERYL STREEP), Britain's former Prime Minister, spends her days keeping to herself and imagining still spending time and conversing with her late husband, Denis (JIM BROADBENT). Their adult daughter, Carol (OLIVIA COLMAN), worries about her mother's mental state and encourages her to start getting rid of Denis' clothes, an act that floods Margaret with memories of her past.

We then see the progression of young Margaret (ALEXANDRA ROACH) going from working at her father's grocery store through meeting young Denis (HARRY LLOYD) and becoming involved in politics. After an unsuccessful bid, she's elected to Parliament where she opposes the policies of the Labour Government to the point that she later becomes leader of her party and finally Prime Minister. During that, we see her having to deal with various events over the days, ranging from domestic issues such as unemployment to foreign affairs including the defense of the Falkland Islands.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
I don't envy any filmmaker who decides to tackle making a biopic of a famous person, especially one who's lived a long life and been involved in various famous and/or historical events. After all, the longest running time most viewers will sit through is three hours or less, and many prefer the clock to tick in somewhere below 120 minutes.

Thus, the quandary of how to truncate such a person's life into such a short span or, conversely, simply decide to focus on one significant chapter and let the critical and public response chips fall where they may for not including everything else. Sophomore director Phyllida Lloyd (who previously helmed the nails down the chalkboard experience that was "Mamma Mia!") has opted for the first option with "The Iron Lady."

While that moniker might not mean anything for those under the age of 30, that nickname was given to Margaret Thatcher for her stance on the Soviet Union back in the days of the Cold War when she was Britain's first (and still only) Prime Minister. Like the metal, she was strong and didn't come from an expensive background (her father was a grocer), but unlike the mineral she wasn't shiny in terms of drawing attention to her appearance. Instead, she let her opinions and decisions get the limelight.

To this day, public opinion still varies about whether she was a great, good or bad leader, all of which pretty much follows one's political leanings. Lloyd doesn't take a stand either way, however, pretty much leaving one's response to the film open to their own interpretation of what's presented. While that could have been a shrewd (if far too safe) move, it only adds to the film generating nothing more than a "meh" response from many viewers and reviewers, including yours truly.

While not every single aspect of Thatcher's life is covered, Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan hit on many of them, but only in a superficial, CliffsNotes sort of way. In fact, the film pretty much plays like a highlight reel sans any sort of commentary on her decisions and policies and the effect they had on her country and its people, the world or even herself. And many of those moments are presented in a montage fashion (including a great chunk of the Falkland Islands invasion and Britain's defense of that) to the point that they pile up to such a high number that most any romantic comedy would be envious.

Where the film works comes in two parts. The first and most obvious, of course, is Meryl Streep's uncanny recreation of Thatcher. Much like she previously did with Julia Child in "Julie & Julia," the actress completely inhabits the part on all levels: physical resemblance (thanks to a superb but not overdone makeup job), vocal delivery and fiery determination.

Although it's pretty much a given nowadays for most any film in which she appears (notwithstanding "Mamma Mia!"), there's little doubt Streep will receive a nomination and quite likely an Oscar win for her portrayal. This easily could have fallen into caricature mode at any moment, but the talented actress keeps the performance away from that slippery slope and, for the most part, completely disappears into the role and our collective memories of what the Prime Minister was like during her heyday.

Where the film is the most effective, however, are in Thatcher's later years, which is what the filmmakers use as their framing device for telling her tale. As the story begins, we see Thatcher as an old woman headed off the corner market to buy her own milk. It's only when she returns to her place, complete with its own machine gun toting guard, that we realize who she is.

We also see her interacting with her husband (a delightful Jim Broadbent) but then quickly realize he isn't real. No, he's not a ghost per se, but rather a hallucination created by her failing mind. When her adult daughter (Olivia Colman) suggest she clean out her late spouse's belongings, the flashbacks begin (including footage where Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd play the couple back in their early and much younger days).

I imagine such an approach would work much better in novel form where the reader could more easily imagine the segue flashbacks and even view them as the product of memory as filtered through a faltering mind. As presented here, the present day scenes are more intimate, personal and involving, but the flashback ones barely have the time to take hold of our interest and engage us on anything but a superficial level. Of course, Streep is terrific throughout. It's just too bad one can't say the same thing about the film surrounding her. "The Iron Lady" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 29, 2011 / Posted January 13, 2012

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