A Lady Well-Cast, by Tyler Smith
Few genres are harder to pull off than the modern biopic. In attempting to tell the story of a public figure, the filmmakers have major obstacles to overcome. How much do they take for granted? Should they just assume that everybody already knows the story of this person? Perhaps they should focus on one defining time in the subject’s life. Or maybe go for broke and try to document the entire life.
There are really only a handful of filmmakers that have managed to make an effective biopic. Films like The Aviator, Nixon, and Capote work well because their filmmakers approach their subjects as if they were any other character in a film. They have the freedom to work from the inside out, rather than try to get everything completely accurate. Other films like Patton and Ed Wood work because there is an unknowable quality to these figures that the filmmakers opt not to question. Rather, they stand back and let us try to figure them out ourselves.
Unfortunately, for every biopic that works, there are probably five that don’t. For every Nixon, there is a Beyond the Sea or a Delovely. These are films that are not content to stand back objectively from their subject, but are unwilling to delve too deep, either. Thus, these films feel almost exploitative. As if the filmmakers simply want to trade on their subjects’ recognizability, rather than actually try to say something about them.
Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady is not totally in the latter camp, but is certainly not in the former. In telling the story of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Lloyd displays an eye for detail and tone and effectively creates a political world that is an impenetrable bureaucracy. The men at the heart of British government in the 1970s and 80s display a frustrating complacency. They’ve been doing this the same way for years and they just going to keep on doing it that way until they die. In the midst of this comes a strong-willed, independent woman, who fights her way into the boys club and quickly takes charge.
It is to Lloyd’s credit that the lead up to Thatcher’s reign is exciting and effective. When telling the story of an important political figure, few things are more important than creating a strong context. We need to get a sense of where and when this person lived, so that we might better understand how they might have decided to take certain actions. Lloyd manages to go against the standard biopic stereotype and actually manages to tell a good portion of the story visually, rather than simply have characters sit around in a medium shot explaining everything to each other (that is, to the audience).
Unfortunately, once Thatcher takes office, the film devolves into a story we’ve seen countless times before, albeit with the genders reversed. Once again, the familiar trope of the unappreciated spouse complaining about not being a priority gets trotted out and we are given some token introspection from Thatcher. Also, many of the specific achievements that Thatcher had while in office are skimmed over. There are many reasons as to why this is. Perhaps Lloyd found the simple fact of Thatcher’s election to be inspiring enough. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable really delving into a figure as divisive as the conservative Prime Minister. Surely, many of the people seeing the film would disagree strongly with Thatcher’s views, so perhaps Lloyd thought it best to play those down.
Whatever the director’s reason, I think it is a major mistake to retreat from what Thatcher really seemed to believe. There is a scene here and there when we really get a sense of this woman’s convictions, whether we believe in them or not, and these scenes are stirring. There is the moment when she decides to go to war to defend the British territories, even though she is under tremendous pressure to simply let them go. As we see Thatcher stand up to her advisers and even the American ambassador, we really start to feel like we’re seeing the real Thatcher in action, rather than a quick series of reenactments.
Ultimately, the choice to make a film about Margaret Thatcher at all is an interesting one. As mentioned, Thatcher is a controversial figure, and there is no doubt a great film to be made about her. Unfortunately, Lloyd and her screenwriter seldom seem very interested in going very deep into her character.
As with any biopic, good or bad, the central element of the film is the lead performance. And, thankfully, Meryl Streep displays a commitment to crafting not only a physically and behaviorally accurate performance, but one of substance. Like so many other actors in these types of roles, Streep could have relied heavily on the exterior of the character; the part we are all familiar with. Instead, much like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Streep creates a full-fledged, three-dimensional character with hopes, dreams, and fears. Only after the character is finished does Streep layer on the cosmetic qualities.
While I try not to fawn over actors that are already widely accepted as being the best of their generation, sometimes I can’t help but be reminded of why those actors are so revered. It has become such a standard position that Meryl Streep is a great actress that we sometimes forget why we think that. When watching The Iron Lady, I remembered. At every level, she is committed to the performance. She manages to put a great amount of effort into the role while never quite seeming to do so. It would have been easy for her to skate through this role, throw on an accent, sound commanding, then go home. But she doesn’t. She invests herself in the role. While watching the film, I not only forgot that I was watching Meryl Streep; I forgot that I was watching “The Best Actress of Her Generation.” I wasn’t even thinking in those terms. I was simply watching Margaret Thatcher.
It is Streep’s committed performance that makes me wish there was a better film surrounding her. When I think of where she has been willing to go in such films as Kramer vs. Kramer, Adaptation., and Doubt, I find myself frustrated that the filmmakers didn’t give her more to do. She certainly elevates the film- along with the sturdy support of Jim Broadbent- but there is only so high it can go when it seems only superficially interested in its subject.
Is The Iron Lady better than the average biopic? I’d say so. It has a good look, a great performance, and the occasional strong, probing scene. But, by and large, I found myself wanting more. I went in wanting to find out who Margaret Thatcher was. What I got was an extremely well-acted Wikipedia entry.