The Review Revue: THE IRON LADY

In “The Review Revue,” we turn dozens of movie reviews from all over the Internet into one handy blog post. It’s like super-concentrated orange juice for film criticism (with less pulp and Vitamin D). This week: Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher in THE IRON LADY.

There are few metaphysical certainties in this world. I only know of three: death, taxes, and annual Oscar talk about Meryl Streep. Streep has won two Academy Awards (for KRAMER VERSUS KRAMER and SOPHIE’S CHOICE) and received a record sixteen nominations, including three in the last four years for THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, DOUBT, and JULIE & JULIA. Her latest film, THE IRON LADY, has Streep the focus of renewed Oscar buzz, and could easily bump her career total to an even more astonishing seventeen nominations. The title of the film refers to the nickname of Streep’s character, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It — and its star’s incredible award track record — suggests a nickname for Streep: The Gold Lady.

But was The Gold Lady’s performance good enough to win over the critics? Or was THE IRON LADY’s reputation less than sterling? Let’s find out.

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Abi Morgan
Cast: Meryl Streep (Margaret Thatcher), Jim Broadbent (Denis Thatcher), Alexandra Roach (Young Margaret Thatcher)
Plot Synopsis: An aging, senile Thatcher recalls her rise from plucky proto-feminist to Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in a series of flashbacks and conversations with the ghost of her dead husband Denis.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 58%
Metacritic Score: 52

Most Positive: Joe Lozito, Big Picture, Big Sound:

“You almost have to feel bad for Meryl Streep. Almost. She’s an actress of virtually unparalleled talent — to the point that her dalliances (MAMMA MIA!, IT’S COMPLICATED) are frowned upon while her more, shall we say, Oscar-worthy performances are held up to monumental expectations, as if to say, ‘this better be the best thing I’ve ever seen.’ Well, her performance in THE IRON LADY — a thoughtful, complex biopic of Margaret Thatcher — does not disappoint. It deserves a place in the Streep canon. So much so, it’s almost dull to watch because, yeah, of course, she’s great.”

(In Other Words:) Streep is so good so often, we take her for granted. Not the easiest position to defend given the fact that she’s the most recognized actor in the history of the Academy Awards, but Lozito still has an interesting point. Streep’s reputation does tend to create a series of expectations that are almost impossible to meet: her very presence lends even middling comedies like IT’S COMPLICATED a patina of respectability and importance they never aspired to.

Most Negative: James Rocchi, The Playlist:

“As for Streep, her dissection of Thatcher’s every turn and twitch is the motion-capture performance of the year, albeit one given by an actual human. There’s no heart here, just the hollow clockwork of a director grinding the gears of a script that’s trying to go too far with too little new fuel in its rusty standard-issue bio-pic tank.”

(In Other Words:) Streep’s lively performance can’t save a lifeless movie. Lozito praises the way THE IRON LADY packs “an astounding amount of information… into [its] lean 105 minute running time,” but Rocchi — and a lot of other critics — were frustrated by the way director Phyllida Lloyd sacrificed quality for quantity. Talk about “super concentrated” — THE IRON LADY boils down a tremendous amount of a woman’s life, leaving behind only the barest bits of story and character. Near the end of the film, as Thatcher’s term in office comes to an end, several of her advisers enact a shocking series of betrayals. They obviously mean a huge amount to Thatcher. Do they mean anything to the audience? Not to anyone who doesn’t already have a firm grasp of early ’90s British politics. The movie doesn’t have the time to give these characters any attention, so the audience never has the time to learn why we should care about them.

Most Typical: Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

“Speaking as someone who despises almost every aspect of the Thatcherite social-economic consensus that has defined the capitalist world for 30 years, and almost every aspect of Thatcher’s actual policies, she deserves more than this. Streep has captured Thatcher wonderfully as a plausible human being, but THE IRON LADY explains nothing about her.”

(In Other Words:) THE IRON LADY is more about Streep the actress than Thatcher the woman. Manically cramming in all those events from Thatcher’s life doesn’t leave any time to capture the complexity of her personality or her politics. Lloyd repeatedly returns to the image of protesters rioting in the streets and pounding on the windows of Thatcher’s limousine, but she never pauses to dwell on why they’re rioting or what for (their hatred of extreme pluckiness, maybe?). That gives Streep plenty of superficial opportunities to play the strong, determined leader, but few chances for true introspection or insight.

The One Review You Have to Read: Jeannette Catsoulis, NPR:

“Streep, as expected, nails the impersonation — as do the hair and makeup wizards, with plenty of Oscar-baiting close-ups — and even adds sensitivity and subtlety to a screenplay not much concerned with either. But everything about the film feels designed to diminish: whether whining petulantly about the price of milk or the nanny state, this Thatcher is more pitiable than admirable. The sexism is horrifying: A biopic of Ronald Reagan that fixated on his mental disintegration and dependence on Nancy would be unthinkable.”

(In Other Words:) The film might sabotage its own message of feminist empowerment. As you can see from THE IRON LADY’s trailer, The Weinstein Company is selling this thing on Streep’s performance and Thatcher’s uplifting arc from unwelcome outsider in the boys’ club of British politics to fiery, defiant leader. And yet, as Catsoulis smartly observes, those themes are undercut by a structure that repeatedly and even ghoulishly trades in Thatcher’s current infirmities. For such a supposedly strong independent woman, THE IRON LADY does seem to place an inflated amount of importance on her relationship with her dead husband.

The Critical Consensus In One Sentence From One Review: “THE IRON LADY is a terrible movie that is saved by an absurdly fascinating performance.” — Phil Hall, Film Threat

THE IRON LADY is now playing in limited release. To find a local showtime, go to the film’s official site.