A predictable story is made weaker by the odd treatment of telling the story of the Iron Lady from the point of view of an unsound mind.
Pairing relative cinematic newcomers director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mama Mia”) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame”) with screen legend in her own time Meryl Streep was a risky proposition and this bet did not pay off.
As expected, sixteen time Oscar nominee Streep and veteran character actor Jim Broadbent carry the day as a wonderfully paired English couple. They spent a lifetime in love and shared a devoted marriage in spite of the crushing demands of the potentially lethal political life Margaret Thatcher chose to adopt.
The British Prime Minister lived and administered over one of the most troubled, dynamic and inspiring periods in the history of Great Britain. She saw everything from the London Blitz through the Irish “troubles,” the Falklands War and the fall of the Iron Curtain. This makes for fascinating story telling; however, it threatens to put Ms. Thatcher, herself, in the background.
Thus, the producers were faced with a tough task, that of keeping the lead character up front while emphasizing the critical and history making nature of the decisions she had to make.
The decision was to tell her story is a series of flashbacks from the point of view of the aging Thatcher who is in the throes of dementia. The average member of the audience will blink a few times simply in getting used to this point of view. It is astonishing that anyone would choose to tell such a powerful story from such a weal point of view.
The viewer is forced to work very hard to confirm that the recalled experiences are factual. They are, indeed, factual. The problem is that this brand of storytelling has a high overhead. Too much precious screen time is lost in setting the scene with not enough left to recount the history.
Perhaps the idea was not to have to dwell too deep into the history. The relationship between Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan is barely explored. US support for the Falklands War is seen to be based on Thatcher’s meetings with the Secretary of State and her telling him that the Argentinian attack on the Falklands is like Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. If most of her administration really consisted of such logic that could explain why most of it was left out.
The few scenes of survival in Parliament make us thirsty for more. These are rare looks behind the scenes where there unwashed public, especially the American unwashed public, are not allowed.
A more straightforward approach to the storytelling might have allowed five times the storytelling in that august environment. Maybe those stories would have better explained why the Prime Minister made the decisions she did.
Make no mistake; Streep will be up for an Oscar nomination for her performance in this film. Her 17th? Big deal. The filmmakers were sloppy with the way this potential blockbuster was handled. Jim Broadbent does a great job playing husband Denis in the few snatches of life he is shown interacting with his wife.
It would be interesting to know how he felt about some of her policies. If that is considered too private, it would seem no more private than Thatcher’s current state of memory loss mixed with hallucinations that makes up all too much of the film.
The audience is not near as interested in scenes of her lying amidst piles of her deceased husband’s clothing and it would have been with her face-to-face meetings with Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II.
Of course, writing and filming the latter would have raised a great deal more dust than the producers likely could tolerate.
Then again, if the point was to tell a story of a leader dedicated to making the tough decisions, it seems appropriate that the filmmakers could have made some tough decisions, too.
Good supporting performances by Alexandra Roach as the young and perfectly vigorous and idealistic Margaret and Harry Lloyd as her suitor Denis. The cinematography, sets, costumes and soundtrack are suitably grand, when they are allowed to be.
The too many scenes shot in the apartment detracted all too much in these areas, as they did in telling what should have been an enthralling story.
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Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
Written by: Abi Morgan
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent and Richard E. Grant
Release Date: December 30, 2011
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Country: UK / France