The Review: There are certain pivotal moments that everyone is supposed to remember; not only what happened, but where they were when it happened. I’m too young for JFK or the moon landing, but I can remember being woken to be told of Princess Di’s fatal car crash, and I can remember sitting in my school library when someone came over to tell me that Margaret Thatcher was stepping down. I was five when she came to power, and sixteen when the mutiny in her party ended her reign, and my early years were dominated by the figure in power suits on TV. When she fell, it was impossible not to have an opinion on her reign, and even now, twenty years later, she casts a shadow over the political landscape that’s likely to last for decades to come. Surely a time for a biopic of Britain’s most significant leader since Churchill is right, especially as the country slips into the kind of conditions that blighted her first two terms in office?
So why we’ve ended up with this half-baked, ham-fisted effort is anyone’s guess. Let’s start with the obvious: Meryl obviously means mesmerising in some foreign tongue. Although she only portrays Maggie from her time in the Commons (Alexandra Roach does a pretty good job of her younger years), Meryl has the Prime Minister and later Baroness Thatcher down pat. The physical resemblance isn’t quite there, the narrow-eyed condescending expression of the real Thatcher replaced with a slightly more wide-eyed stare, but in every other sense her Margaret is utterly immaculate. Streep perfectly captures the sense of the woman, both in full flight laying down the law to the men around her, and in her dotage as she attempts to deal with the facets of her dementia.
Streep will probably walk off with an Oscar, and it would be well deserved, so it’s almost a tragedy that pretty much everything else in The Iron Lady is various levels of lacking. In terms of the cast, Streep is sublime, but the rest form a sliding scale to the ridiculous. Olivia Colman has a prosthetic which still fails to make her look like Carol Thatcher but does well on the acting stakes, and Jim Broadbent captures the bumbling, cheerful nature associated with Denis but is given little to do in reality. At the other extreme, Richard E Grant makes a slightly odd Michael Heseltine and Anthony Head might just be one of the most miscast people ever as Geoffrey Howe. A wide range of other figures get paraded through during the running time, most of whom you’ll recognise if you’re British but few if any of whom have chance to make much impression. Just like Maggie’s government, then.
But if the rest of the cast struggle manfully, it’s the script and the direction that are a real let-down. Abi Morgan’s script has an odd fixation with the dementia years; it might have made for a useful bookending device to give lazy context to the rest of the story, but so much time is spent with Margaret’s hallucinations of dead husband Denis and an equally odd fixation with Rogers and Hammerstein that the meat of the story feels swamped. When I see meat, though, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s any genuine understanding here of what made Maggie tick, or any attempt to understand the impact of her politics in any wider context. Watching The Iron Lady is like watching a dramatisation of a Wikipedia page, and about half as thrilling; the dementia episodes serve only to make it feel as if the page is still being edited while you’re watching it. Events are oddly out of order and without context (the Grand Hotel atrocity seems to inform Margaret’s views on terrorism prior to the Falklands war, even though in reality it happened two years later) and every scene has the depth of the shallow end of a paddling pool. The Iron Lady fails to understand either the woman or the situations in which she lived, and Lloyd’s direction is the icing on a rather bitter cake, adding an almost pantomime quality with scenes of farce that would have seemed over the top in her previous effort, Mamma Mia! There’s an evident feminist agenda at the start, but by the end the loss of faculties has affected the film as badly – no matter what your politics, you can’t help feeling that Thatcher deserved better than this.
Why see it at the cinema: I’m struggling to think of good reasons if I’m being brutally honest. Shot with a TV movie of the week sensibility, and using far too much stock footage to come over clearly, unless you want to be dominated by Streep’s performance then there’s no reason not to wait for the DVD. Or not bother.
The Score: 3/10
The Review: There’s a certain comfort to a Mike Leigh film. He’s explored different themes, moods and eras over the years, but compared to someone like Steven Soderbergh, who weaves in and out of genres almost as if he’s scared to be pinned down, there’s always a certain quality to Leigh’s work. That quality is undoubtedly driven by the meticulous preparation and extensive collaborations with his actors, although he has arguably mellowed a little in recent years, especially with his previous effort, the Sally Hawkins starrer Happy-Go-Lucky.
To a certain extent, though, it’s business as usual at the start, with Imelda Staunton laying down the early groundwork before we get to meet the core characters of the story. We follow Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) through the course of what is in essence an unremarkable year, but there are four stopping off points in the course of that journey, nominally marked out by the seasons but also marking the key interactions between Tom, Gerri and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville). While Joe and Mary start in similar situations, reflecting on their own isolation, events as the seasons progress take them in notably different directions.
Tom and Gerri (and yes, reference is made in the film to the coincidence of their names) seem to be cast from the same mould as Sally Hawkins’ Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky, the eternal optimists just travelling through life, but at a later point in their journey, so with a little world weariness taking the polish off that optimism. They certainly allow event to intrude on that happiness a little, and of course Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are both thoroughly charming in their roles. But it’s Mary who’s the catalyst for events, in her own little bubble and bouncing through Tom and Gerri’s world and causing ripples as she goes. Lesley Manville is outstanding as the fraught and excitable Mary, ranging from gabbling at nineteen to the dozen when her nerves come through or when flirting with Joe, to uncomfortable silences when left in the company of others for too long, and in every extreme Manville is close to perfection.
The passage of the seasons is marked very effectively, not only in the changing cinematography but in the use of the seasons to reflect the moods of the characters themselves, almost as if they create the feeling of the season more than their environment. But nothing is flash or showy, Leigh giving scenes the room to breathe that they need and not afraid to linger when the story requires. Despite that, that pace never flags, although it could be argued that Another Year is always a shade more interesting when Manville is on screen. It’s her performance that will linger longest after the credits, but Leigh remains in the fine form he’s been in for the past decade and this could actually be his best effort for some time; subtle, believable, funny and with just enough personal despair to balance out the lighter drama.
Why see it at the cinema: To fully appreciate the shades of the cinematography and to become wrapped up fully in the fates of the characters. There’s also a few chuckles to appreciate with your fellow audience members.
The Score: 9/10