Sometimes a movie that deserves a spot on a critic’s ten worst films list ends up being excluded because of a technicality. The beetle-headed Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady should almost dead to rights be quite high up on the list of 2011’s cinematic atrocities, but thanks to limited Oscar qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles at the end of the year I felt it wrong to talk about the film in too much depth before its proper wide release. It wasn’t embargoed at all, but I felt it was still too early. That time for charity is over. This movie’s an outright trainwreck with a central performance that isn’t half as good as the work that Meryl Streep has shown in the past.
In a recent issue of Metro, Mark Breslin quite rightfully pointed out that Streep was all but assured an Oscar as soon as the trailer for the film was released. One of the key problems with the film – and one that it shares with last week’s even more dreadful The Devil Inside – is that the trailer promises a movie that will never actually show up on screen. Instead of dealing predominantly with the controversial firebrand that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was, Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan (who fared better last year when she co-wrote Steve McQueen’s Shame) instead focus on a modern day variation of Thatcher where she is riddled with dementia and plagued by visions of her dead husband (Jim Broadbent).
What ensues is quite possibly the goofiest prestige project in recent memory. There isn’t a single moment in the present timeline where Thatcher can be taken seriously because the film’s politics are so obviously against her practices. In the scenes of historical recreations, Morgan can’t be bothered to do more than trot out old left wing editorial section sentiments and recreate speeches word for word. Thatcher assuredly pissed people off, and while I never would have voted for her personally, there is absolutely no imagination to the political polemic at the heart of the film. There’s “letting someone’s actions speak for themselves” and there’s just being lazy. This film falls into the latter category reserved mostly for the likes of Oliver Stone works.
It doesn’t help matters that Lloyd is in way over her head as a director. Some sequences don’t go anywhere, but seem to have been left in simply because Streep was pretty decent in them. In scenes that find Thatcher in her prime, the near word for word speechifying from Morgan is accompanied with overbearing musical stings designed to make things feel more inspirational than they really are. The depictions of public upheaval are so rudimental and obvious that I thought back to a music video from British screamo band Funeral for a Friend that dealt with miner riots more subtly.
The incompetence of the filmmaking in Iron Lady becomes patently inexcusable during the reprehensible recreation of a woman’s struggle with dementia. It’s understandable that for narrative purposes the headstrong Thatcher would want to maintain a sense of personal control despite a failing mind, but Lloyd and Morgan’s approach is downright disrespectful of anyone who has ever had to watch something that hard to stomach. The dead husband character pops up to cheer up Thatcher in the kookiest ways possible. At one point Broadbent the Friendly Ghost sneaks up behind Thatcher with a party hat and noise maker ready to celebrate. Following a bombing attempt on Thatcher’s compound, we only briefly see Thatcher’s reaction before the scene cuts to a reaction shot of her husband complaining that his shoes are ruined. Thatcher tries to distance herself from the memory of her beloved by simply throwing all his belongings away and giving him the same send off Peter Sellers got in Being There. To say that all of this is laughable would be an understatement.
As for Streep, she’s good, but not great and certainly in no way worthy of an Oscar. It’s the kind of performance that has most of its work done by some really convincing makeup and prosthetic teeth. Streep looks the part, but the material gives her nothing more to do than deliver a straight impression of a well known personality. There is no humanity beneath the impersonation, and a lot of that’s because she has nothing substantial to work with. To give her an award for this film would be a sham. It’s giving an award to someone for the sake of giving her an award based around a solid body of work. It’s an ultimate celebration of mediocrity that would taint and stain the Academy for years to come in light of a year filled with great performances from Jessica Chastain, Elizabeth Olsen, Rooney Mara, Tilda Swinton, Charlize Theron, and even Michelle Williams – who at least had the good sense to not deliver an outright impression of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. The movie is goofy, irredeemable garbage and if Streep wins the system of choosing Oscar winners is irrevocably broken. Then again, they’ve arguably been broken for quite some time now.
At least it’s bad in a good way, though. Despite my misgivings about this movie being taken at all seriously, there is definitely some great camp value here. If one were to recast Will Ferrell as Thatcher and John C. Reilly as her husband, but the script and direction remained intact, it just might be a perfect comedy. Just don’t expect to see a good movie.