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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Iron Lady

THE IRON LADY (Three Stars)
U.K.-U.S.; Phyllida Lloyd, 2010
Love her or hate her — and there were plenty of strong feelings on both sides of the fence —Margaret Thatcher remains one of the most fascinating and influential Western world leaders of the 20th century, richly deserving of the classy dramatization she gets in this Weinstein Company release. And I say that as part of her opposition, as one of the lefties she seemed to despise.
A woman politician who conquered a man’s world though she herself was adamantly against feminism, an arch-conservative among Tories, a disciple of the free market economics of Friedrich von Hayek, and a nationalist during the years when the sun was setting on the British Empire, an Oxford Graduate whose policies infuriated her own alma mater; and the daughter of a middle class grocer from a Liberal family (from Grantham) who ended up as a confidante of the Queen and as Baroness Thatcher in the House of Lords. An ample lady with a prominent face made for political caricature, plus a toothy smile and a screechy voice she modified by voice coaching, Maggie Thatcher was the kind of world leader who seems too colorful, too offbeat and too dramatically eccentric to have ever been invented as fiction. So life invented her instead.
 On the other hand, Meryl Streep, the American movie star who plays/impersonates/inhabits/incarnates Thatcher in the new Weinstein Company movie The Iron Lady, is not only one of the greatest movie actresses of the 20th and 21st centuries, an artist of confounding competence, flawless mimicry and consistent brilliace, but someone who can vanish into her parts totally. And here, she’s giving what is certainly one of her most amazing and impressive performances. You look at her and you can only say one word: “Thatcher.” Or maybe something ruder, but you get the idea.
It’s the juiciest of juicy real-life roles: one in which Streep captures the external mannerisms and speech patterns of Thatcher (superbly), gets her toothy smile, her genial imperious manner, her screechy-later-mellowed voice, and then delves deeper inside to explore emotional undercurrents and psychological nuances. In the movie we see Thatcher as a bright young lady from Lincolnshire (played at first by Alexandra Roach), and later (Streep’s turn), as a feisty educated woman on the rise, a dominating conservative political figure, an embattled Prime Minister sending troops to the Falklands, castigating the Soviets (who gave her that “Iron Lady“ nickame), fighting the world, and her own Conservative party — and finally as a still-confident but lonely old lady (in 2009 or thereabouts) in the throes of dementia and hallucination, chatting up her dead husband Denis (played by that affable, sometime designated husband of great bio-movie ladies, Jim Broadbent) and slipping, in her mind, back to her consequential years on the world stage, her days of power, her hours of glory, the times when she was most intimidatingly, Maggie Thatcher, P.M.
Streep can get all that because she’s never been intimidated herself by playing great or extraordinary ladies. (Or controversial ones).

So why then is this movie, with its rich subject, broad canvas and magnificent lead performance, with all that high-serious, high-toned stuff going for it, still somewhat dull and unsatisfying at times? A “must see” for Streep’s performance of course, and an enjoyably literate bio-movie in the vein of The King‘s Speech and The Queen, but a movie that, in the end, doesn’t really move you, even though Thatcher herself was a political leader who moved people intensely all the time — to rage or adoration and to many calibrations in between?

Perhaps that’s a occupational hazard of some bio movies about controversial political figures. I’m not sure of their political leanings, but The Iron Lady’s director and writer — Phyllida Lloyd of Mamma Mia! (in which Streep sang ABBA songs and danced with Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan), and Abi Morgan, who co-wrote Irish filmmaker Steve McQueen‘s sexually uninhibited nightmare Shame — would seem likely lefties or at least moderates. (Most writers and directors, and artists in general, are.) At the very least, you’d expect that they’d question many or some of the policies Maggie stood for (not counting her tolerance on sexual matters) and that came to comprise “Thatcherism“: untrammeled free market economics, deregulation of business, anti-labor union, pro-Reagan, hard core conservatism, or, as it came to be known in England, “Thatcherism.”

It’s also probable they admire Thatcher (as do I) as a woman who broke political barriers and won a game that was initially stacked against her.

But, whatever their own politics, the strategy of Lloyd and Morgan here is to pretty much ignore or at least down-pedal Thatcher’s hard-core views and what influenced by them, to sideswipe them, or to avoid over-dramatizing or exploiting them, except in brief spurts (a flurry of Irish Republican Army violence that includes bombing and the assassination of Airey Neale (Nicholas Farrell) and her reconquest of the Falklands after Argentina retook them) — and to concentrate instead on her internal battles with stuffy, dressed-up conservative politicos like Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) and Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), and a home life that includes her ghostly confabs with Denis, and her sparky confrontations with daughter Carol (Olivia Coleman).

The movie doesn’t really dramatize Thatcher’s politics, or what their consequences were, or why she had them (her family had been Liberal, after all), or what she tried to achieve, except for brief symbolic pictures and jabs: like the surly protestors who keep charging her limousine and shouting in at her window, or the transcendent pre-Dancing-with-the-Stars tableau moment when she twirls (after a fashion) across a ballroom floor with Ronald Reagan.

Indeed the movie seems to spend as much time with Streep’s Thatcher in her alleged semi-dotage, summoning up visions of the past while she wanders around her dwelling, than it does with Thatcher in her Iron Lady prime. I’m not sure of the intention here — maybe it’s to elicit maximum sympathy for a figure whom the moviemakers know is divisive, maybe it’s something more Dickensian — but I would have preferred more moments of high historical drama amd less of lower imaginary pathos.

Luckily, the movie has Streep, still in her prime at 62, still effortlessly slipping beneath the skins of her parts, still showing us what acting is all about, still turning herself wonderfully into somebody else for our pleasure. My favorite performance by a movie actress this year was by the wondrous Korean player Jeong-Hie Yon as the beleaguered grandmother in Poetry, but I realize there’s no way in the world that she’ll even be nominated for an American best actress Oscar. I’m also partial to Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, and Viola Davis in The Help. But I won’t be unhappy if the Weinsteins squeeze out another best actress win for Meryl Streep. Now, there’s a woman — you think as you watch her in The Iron Lady — who could really run a country. Or at least there’s a woman who can really run a movie about a woman running a country.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon