Let’s be frank, ever since it was announced Meryl Streep would portray highly controversial UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the new biopic “The Iron Lady” it was assumed she would be nominated once again for best actress. The role was too Oscar friendly for her not to be. When this occurs, it will be her 17th Academy Award nomination overall and her 13th in a row since winning her second Oscar almost 29 years ago for “Sophie’s Choice.” No, that’s not a typing error. The 84th Academy Awards will mark 29 years since Streep last graced the Academy stage to accept an Oscar.
Streep has been incredibly gracious in defeat over the years losing for stunning performances in films such as “Out of Africa,” “Ironweed,” “A Cry in the Dark,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Adaptation” (plus some fantastic non-nominated work in “The Hours” and “Manchurian Candidate” if we really want to go there). However, more recently it was clear her performances might be worthy of a nomination, but certainly not a win (“Julie & Julia” and “Doubt” in particular). Many were concerned when news of her starring in “Lady” broke as it could easily be pegged as an obvious Oscar bait role and/or picture (i.e., it could be seen as desperate). Happily, and somewhat surprisingly, that isn’t the case.
Directed with impressive style by Streep’s former “Mamma Mia!” collaborator Phyllida Lloyd, “Iron Lady” begins in modern day England where Thatcher (currently 86-years-old) has secretly escaped her guarded home for a visit to the local convenient store. We find her personal overseer/maid (your guess is as good as mine) quite upset with the assigned security for letting her get out. Coddled and almost imprisoned in her own home, Thatcher is keenly aware of her deteriorating situation and Streep subtly has her “play along” as though she is unaware of what the younger help say about her. Through all of this, Thatcher speaks to her deceased husband Denis (a spirited Jim Broadbent) as her assigned assistant and daughter Carol (a fine Olivia Coleman) try to get her to finally pack up his belongings. While going through her home, Denis things, sitting through a dinner with Conservative Party members and visiting the doctor, Thatcher recalls key moments of her life both good and bad. The main thrust of Abi Morgan’s screenplay is clearly Thatcher finally letting her beloved Denis go.
“Iron Lady” is an interesting case study for critics and audiences because Thatcher was so reviled by many in the UK and abroad. She was also praised for “turning around” a faltering economy and has her supporters (you don’t remain PM for 11 years without it), but she is just as polarizing in Britain as her counterpart Ronald Reagan or, more recently, George W. Bush here in the states (although at least the former had the respect of his political adversaries). And there is no doubt Morgan’s script does it’s best to portray Thatcher as anything but a heartless caricature. Yep, she’s a real human being who might not be as callous as many believe.. It’s very similar to “J. Edgar” in that regard except, in this case, Morgan actually has facts and real insight into the personal life of his subject. But, she was dubbed “The Iron Lady” for good reason and it will be hard for many to divorce their views on Thatcher from the picture. Thatcher systematically did everything possible to destroy her country’s labor unions (an intriguing modern day political parallel) and seemed insensitive to the needs of her country’s lower classes. The film absolutely provides a justification for her ideology, but those hardcore Conservative principles likely won’t play to the masses.
In this pundit’s view the picture provides as much coverage to her failures as her successes, especially the Falklands war (a scene with then Sec. of State Alexander Haig representing U.S. reservations about a UK/Argentinian War is priceless). More impressive, however, is the lack of celebrity historical markers dotting the film’s flashbacks. There isn’t a mention of Princess Diana (a dominant media figure during her time in office) and the Royals or Queen Elizabeth II are scantly mentioned. In fact, the only hint of England’s monarchy is Thatcher’s drive to Buckingham Palace to form a new government. Thatcher also had a famously friendly relationship with Ronald Reagan and besides one montage of a dance between the world leaders there is no real scene including the two let alone a phone call. Many may criticize Morgan for justifying Thatcher’s ideals, but you have to give him credit for fashioning a more sophisticated take on the icon than many might have expected.
Of course, the big question was whether Streep could pull off a role that could easily become a caricature in the wrong hands. Would she habitually succumb to the acting “tricks” that were evident in her last two major roles? Thankfully, the answer to that question is a direct and succinct no. Added by some superb makeup, Streep is the best she’s been in years, carefully jumping between decades with aplomb. Again, she plays the former world leader like the person she is today (or as Lloyd and Morgan see her), a “just do it” woman trying to move forward as her body begins to falter and the world increasingly changes around her.
As to whether Streep can break that embarrassing losing streak (on the Academy’s end of course) she has some some strong competition in her “Doubt” co-star Viola Davis’ memorable and moving turn in “The Help” and fellow Weinstein Company stablemate Michelle Williams who also goes down the historical route with “My Week with Marilyn.” It seems unlikely that Williams can vault over Streep and Davis, but those who believe Davis is the frontrunner will likely change their minds after viewing “Lady.” The picture is arriving in theaters on Dec. 30, but if the Weinstein Company can get screeners to members before the Christmas holiday break she has an excellent chance of joining the three-tier winner club. Maybe.
“Iron Lady” will likely be a player in the makeup, screenplay (original) and original score (Thomas “10 nods, no wins” Newman) races. Anything else will depend on how the film is received by top critics in the U.S..
“The Iron Lady” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 30.
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