The "aging-icon-looking-back-on-life" device is one of cinema's oldest, hoariest tricks, especially when it comes to biographies; Hollywood can never seem to resist the inexplicable allure of burying actors beneath layers of makeup and asking them to dodder to an Oscar nomination.
But the new Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady does something unusual and altogether calamitous -- the framing device ends up taking over the entire movie. The story begins with Thatcher (Meryl Streep) puttering around a grocery shop, where nobody recognizes the former prime minister in their midst. What follows, bizarrely, is a portrait of an aging woman struggling with dementia, punctuated by brief, nonilluminating flashbacks to major historical events of the past half-century. The life of one of the most formidable female politicians in world history has been used as fodder for a middling drama about growing old and losing your marbles.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (who worked with Streep on Mamma Mia!), and written by Abi Morgan (who did far craftier work co-writing the sex addiction drama Shame), The Irony Lady is destined to be remembered as one of the most glaring "What were they thinking?" movies of the past decade.
We watch Thatcher carrying on a conversation with her long-dead husband (Jim Broadbent), while the servants bicker: Who allowed her to leave the house unsupervised? Eventually the flashbacks commence, and we meet a teenage Margaret (Alexandra Roach), a young grocer's daughter who is dubious of the all-boys network of British politics. But everything rushes by in a whoosh, with large chunks of a fascinating historical period -- a moment when female politicians were first becoming formidable forces around the globe -- glossed over.
To judge by this movie, the Irish Republican Army was little more than a pesky thorn in Thatcher's side, and the Falklands War mostly just served to stimulate the U.K.'s then-stagnating economy. Thatcher's relationship with President Ronald Reagan is reduced to a single shot of them dancing during a breezy montage of Thatcher's most successful years. Meanwhile, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and the British coal miners whose strike Thatcher crushed in 1985 are ignored altogether in favor of a series of cutesy, repetitive sequences in which a brassy Thatcher squares off against her smug male colleagues in Parliament. The Iron Lady is like a history-class term paper written by someone who only showed up for two lectures the entire semester.
In the final section of the film, the aging Thatcher once again takes center stage, struggling to remember who she is and understand what she wrought, as her daughter Carol (Olivia Coleman) dolefully looks on. The real-life Thatcher has been mostly out of the public eye in recent years, indeed reportedly suffering from dementia, which makes this section of the film entirely speculative -- and a cruel kind of speculation at that. Are the filmmakers suggesting the prime minister's dementia is a manifestation of her moral guilt -- having divided the country and destabilized the middle class, she now allows herself to forget her worst sins? Are they saying she got the dotage she deserved? (To be fair, in interviews the filmmakers have denied widespread criticism that this movie mocks Thatcher -- though they don't seem capable of explaining what their intentions were otherwise.)
As for Streep, she predictably nails Thatcher's high, patrician voice, and that expression which was always poised between sweet grandma and laser-eyed contract killer. She's also effective in the present-day sequences, capturing that flicker of consciousness that often flashes into the eyes of dementia sufferers and then is just as quickly extinguished. But Morgan's script doesn't give Streep much to play with; we get little sense of this woman's day-to-day struggles, or what she thought about the major issues that she confronted. The performance, perhaps inevitably, turns into showboating and caricature. And the real bummer here: This epic botch pretty much ruins any chance of us ever seeing this fascinating historical period done properly on screen. A number of excellent titles, among them Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot, Mike Leigh's High Hopes and Shane Meadows' This Is England, have shown us Thatcher-era Britain from the perspective of the working class. But we've never gotten the other side of the story. The filmmakers don't seem to like or even respect Margaret Thatcher, but that's not necessarily a failing. What makes The Iron Lady the single worst movie I saw in 2011 is that they haven't even bothered to try to understand her.