I didn't know Margaret Thatcher; Margaret Thatcher wasn't a friend of mine. But Meryl Streep, you're no Margaret Thatcher.
Streep, considered by many to be the finest actress of her generation, portrays Thatcher in The Iron Lady. But the film is a pretender to the throne inhabited a year ago by The King's Speech. No doubt, producers of The Iron Lady drooled over accolades and golden statues accumulated by last year's Anglophile biopic, but they have overreached for an Oscar with neither style nor substance to keep them upright. In fact, The Iron Lady is a celluloid masquerade ball, with the primary focus on Streep's imitation of Thatcher. The film, meanwhile, is a mess.
Director Phyllida Lloyd (who directed Streep in Mama Mia!) unfortunately paints one of the 20th century's most complex individuals as an unrecognizable cartoon. Streep is surrounded by secondary characters--not much more than window dressing--to frame her performance rather than advance the narrative.
My personal, yet remote, experience with Thatcher decades ago confirmed for me that the lady was never to be underestimated. While staying in London's Park Lane Hotel in July 1982, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a cordial, yet rather urgent staffer. I was told the hotel had been "regrettably targeted by a nasty bit of business" due to an Irish Republican Army bomb threat. The IRA had detonated two other bombs earlier that month in London's Hyde and Regent's parks. As we huddled on the sidewalk in our pajamas, a limousine rolled up to the hotel and out stepped Thatcher to greet bleary-eyed hotel patrons, describing the would-be bombers as "these callous and cowardly men." Thatcher glad-handed each of us, as if she was soliciting votes in the midst of an urban war.
Seven years later, during another London visit, I witnessed Thatcher's political sinew again, this time facing off against labor unions that had brought the United Kingdom to a halt with three weeks of transit strikes, shutting down subways, trains and buses. Thatcher did the unthinkable--turning Hyde Park into a parking lot. Refusing to bow to the transit unions and knowing that more commuters would drive automobiles into London and cause gridlock in the inner city, Thatcher dug in her high heels and ordered the British army to serve as traffic cops, allowing people to park their cars on the grounds of the 300-year-old landmark.
Now, that's the iron lady that I and countless others remember. And it's the iron lady I desperately hoped to see in Streep's new movie. All politics aside (much of Thatcher's ultra-conservatism was pretty draconian), the real iron lady was never to be disregarded. Unfortunately the movie The Iron Lady comes across like an over-extended, and quite tedious, SNL skit.
At the recent Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., comedienne Tracey Ullman asked Streep, her good friend and co-star in Plenty, "Is there anything you're crap at, Meryl?"
The line got a big laugh--there is little that the two-time Oscar winner doesn't excel at on screen. And for all I know, Streep's performance in The Iron Lady may have been swell, but I hated the movie too much to notice.