Thursday, December 29, 2011

Meryl does Maggie in THE IRON LADY, Phyllida Lloyd's personal and political bio-pic

Is this year's Best Actress "Oscar" coming down to a race between celebrities playing celebrities? Michelle as Marilyn vs. Meryl as Maggie? Could be. Having not yet seen My Week With Marilyn, TM can only comment on THE IRON LADY, and the expected fine work coming from Meryl Streep. This amazing actress not only captures the look and sound of Margaret Thatcher, but lets us into the lady's mind and soul, about as well as could be expected for a woman who, in terms of the former seemed to be locked into a mindset of her early days a grocer's daughter, and regarding the latter, if she was not totally souless, had a terribly pinched version of one.

Into what a pickle, I suspect, the film's director, Phyllida Lloyd, must have found herself after taking on this project. How, after all, does an artist manage a movie about a woman as hated by so many, particularly those in the arts community, as was Maggie Thatcher? Mrs. Thatcher certainly had (and continues to have) her supporters, so should the filmmaker pitch her movie toward them? It's a real quandary, and while, certainly, you'll never please both sides, more likely you'll please neither.

While the filmmaker could, we suppose, have offered up a broadside that would enrage either the left- or right-wing, it would appear that Ms. Lloyd decided to take the middle road, a smart -- perhaps the only -- route she could travel in order to provide her producers with anything approaching a movie that would make a little money. The first scene, in which an elderly Maggie goes off to fetch a container of milk from the local convenience shop, is comprised of a knockout few minutes, in which you can hardly believe that you are watching Meryl Streep. We travel back and forth in time from the early days to the present, but always moving slowly forward as the young Maggie -- pert, smart and seemingly supple and reasonable -- ages into the carefully coiffed and made-up harpy/harridan who can and will brook no dissent from those closest to her.

And so the first half of her film gives us the younger and more "personal" Thatcher, a bit of family life in that grocery store, and her budding interest in politics coupled to the manner in which she meets the "love" of her life (played by Harry Lloyd -- above, right, and no relation to the director -- as a young man, and by Jim Broadbent (below, left) as the older version.

The younger Maggie is given terrific form and feeling by a newcomer from Brit TV, Alexandra Roach, below -- who manages to make us care enough for this young woman that we can carry that caring into the film's second half, which is much more political and involves the less easy-to-bear older woman that Streep portrays.

Once we leave "first love" and the initial foray into politics behind, and Maggie takes over as Prime Minister (the first woman to hold that job in Britain's history), it soon becomes clear how over-her-head and unequipped for either politics or leadership Ms Thatcher actually was. Of all the "events" of her reign, it's the Falkland Islands' war that the film's covers most heavily, with brief nods to unemployment and privatization along the way.

History buffs are likely to be disappointed in The Iron Lady, given the paltry job it does with politics and events, but both conservative and left-wing audiences should find some (but not much) succor in the film's depiction of Maggie. By the finale, she's left with her memories of her late husband, whom she off-and-on imagines to still be around. (How Streep handles this tricky, just-how-nutty-is-she? scenario is remarkable: She offers just the right amount of paranoia balanced with that iron will.)

A word must be said for the fine actress Olivia Colman (above, right of Tyrannosaur), who plays Thatcher's daughter Carol. The movie make clear what a disaster the PM has been in terms of her children. Carol -- clearly abused emotionally and verbally, if not physically -- is a wreck, while Thatcher's only son has beat a retreat to South Africa, where he remains.

On balance, if the movie is no great shakes, neither is it ever uninteresting. There are a raft of small but sharp performances from some of Britains' best actors -- from Roger Allum (above, right) and Nicholas Farrell (above, left) to Richard E. Grant and Iain Glen. You'll remember Streep, of course, and will probably find yourself surprised to be looking so fondly on Thatcher's younger days, yet with renewed horror at her despicable term as Prime Minister (and mother). So you see, everybody wins. And loses.

The Iron Lady begins its limited run Friday, December 30, in New York City at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square and the Regal Union Square Stadium 14, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood. A limited, national rollout will be coming, along with the New Year.

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