Though a Soviet journalist reportedly dubbed former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "the iron lady," the actress who embodies the tough, uncompromising political leader in the biopic of the same name could very well share the moniker. For the past 35 years, Meryl Streep has been the screen's iron lady, fashioning a gamut of finely etched, diverse, and thrilling portrayals that have earned her a staggering 17 Oscar nominations. It's incomprehensible - and reprehensible - that her last victory (as the tragic title character in the Holocaust drama 'Sophie's Choice') came a whopping 29 years ago, for any number of Streep performances during that period could have (and should have) garnered the prize. So to see the greatest actress in the history of motion pictures (and that includes such legends as Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis) at last take home the coveted gold statuette once again was very gratifying indeed, and a long overdue validation of a unique and fascinating talent.
Without question, "Marvelous Meryl" deserved the honor. Her evocation of Thatcher is truly magnificent, a meticulous, nuanced portrayal that goes well beyond the realm of impersonation. Just as she did in her exceptional turn as iconic chef Julia Child in 'Julie & Julia,' Streep makes us believe she actually is the character she is portraying, and believe me, that's no small feat. Yet if Streep's work in Phyllida Lloyd's 'The Iron Lady' is slightly less magnificent than some of her other Oscar nominated incarnations, who's to quibble? The woman was due another Academy Award, and it was high time she received one!
Unfortunately, the vehicle that supports Streep's excellent acting rarely lives up to her performance. I must confess to a fair degree of trepidation regarding 'The Iron Lady' when I first heard that Lloyd, who all but ruined 'Mamma Mia!,' would be helming this project, and my fears were not unfounded. Lloyd is a competent director, but she fails to provide much creative spark, so 'The Iron Lady' often plods along, lacking the fire of its incendiary central character. A limited budget further hampers Lloyd's efforts, as does a screenplay that concentrates too heavily on an elderly, delusional Thatcher battling the effects of encroaching dementia. Though Streep is often at her best as the doddering former doyenne of British politics, I'd rather witness more of Thatcher in action in her prime.
Just like another uneven biopic from last year, Clint Eastwood's 'J. Edgar,' 'The Iron Lady' foregoes a linear approach in favor of multiple flashbacks, which ebb and flow nicely from Thatcher's scattered, aged brain, but make it tough - unless one is a British history scholar - to follow the arc of the prime minister's career. Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan do show us bits and pieces of Thatcher's youth, and examine such defining elements as her humble roots as a grocer's daughter, burgeoning romance with future husband Denis, struggles to break through the barriers of the old boy network that defined British parliament, and continuing battles with IRA terrorists. It's all presented tastefully and forthrightly, with plenty of typical stiff-upper-lip British resolve and reserve, yet rarely does the history come alive. Even the treatment of the Falkland Islands incident in the early 1980s, which spawned the clever Newsweek headline "The Empire Strikes Back" and stands as one of the defining events of Thatcher's "reign," is strangely lackluster. Passion comes at a premium in 'The Iron Lady,' and stems almost exclusively from Streep's masterful portrayal. But, as Margaret Thatcher herself came to realize, there's only so much one woman can do, and if 'The Iron Lady' teaches us anything, it proves Streep needs a better support staff and sturdier framework to showcase her brilliance.
The film also remains maddeningly noncommittal in its assessment of Thatcher's contributions and how her often stern and abrasive personality affected those with whom she worked. An unabashed control freak, Thatcher blazed her own trail, keeping a tight rein on her advisors and stubbornly clinging to her own opinions, even in the face of massive dissension. Yet the film is so firmly anchored in her own point of view, we never get any outside perspective from her allies, enemies, or the common people most influenced by her policies. Yes, she faced opposition - we see that in the rioting that took place and in the withering glances of her frustrated colleagues - but more context is needed to paint a full-bodied portrait of a pivotal, controversial figure.
And sadly, the intimate side of this portrait of Thatcher suffers from too much attention paid to delusional discussions between an elderly Margaret and her dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), often a figure of ridicule in the British press, but a strong, supportive presence in Thatcher's life. Denis brought out Margaret's humanity, and his light-hearted attitude and sensitivity kept her grounded and softened her harsh edges. Broadbent does a fine job in a difficult role, and creates a beautifully delicate, comfortable, and intimate chemistry with Streep, but I'd rather see elongated sequences of Thatcher bickering with her adversaries, formulating policy, or interacting with her family during her years at 10 Downing Street than watch repeated, mundane interplays with a figment of her imagination. From all accounts, Thatcher lived a quiet personal life free from the sensationalism of scandal, but that doesn't mean domestic episodes can't be creatively and tenderly depicted.
I've now seen 'The Iron Lady' twice, and I liked it better the second time. It's a very measured, methodical film that's greatest failing just might be that it respects its subject too much. Margaret Thatcher may be a British icon, but she's far from a saint, and though this film fosters admiration for her, it seems much too reluctant to knock her off her pedestal and expose her warts. In the featurettes that accompany this middling biopic, Streep and Lloyd talk at length about how the film really gets under Thatcher's skin. That may be true to an extent, but 'The Iron Lady' doesn't delve far enough beneath that porous surface. Most of the time, this character study is as rigid as the lady herself, and only goes skin deep.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Iron Lady' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case that contains three discs - a Blu-ray, DVD, and time-sensitive digital copy disc. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once inserted in the player, previews for 'The Artist,', 'W./E.,' 'My Week with Marilyn,' 'In the Land of Blood and Honey,' and 'Anonymous' run automatically before the full-motion menu with music pops up.
'The Iron Lady' comes equipped with a clear, vibrant, but not dazzling 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that hits all the right notes, but lacks that wow factor that would set it apart from the bastion of other new releases currently hitting the shelves. Grain is a bit more noticeable than one might like, yet it's hardly intrusive, and supplies a welcome warmth that lends the image texture and depth. While well-pitched contrast allows background elements to be easily discernible and bolsters shadow delineation, a rather muted color palette keeps the picture as reserved as some of the stiff-upper-lip British characters. Thatcher wears a number of blue suits and gowns in varying shades, but the hues rarely pop, and even the lush English foliage looks a little drab.
Black levels, however, remain rich and inky throughout, and fleshtones appear true and stable, if a bit pasty. The marvelous makeup, which deservedly won an Oscar, holds up well in the home environment, looking natural and blending seamlessly, especially in close-ups. Tight shots often exhibit a touch of softness, as do pieces of news and archival footage, which vary in quality, grain level, and color timing.
No crush, noise, or banding afflicts the image, and no digital enhancements seem to have been applied either. All in all, this is a stellar transfer that presents a pleasing picture, but it won't bowl anyone over.
'The Iron Lady' is one of the last films I would have expected to possess kick-ass audio, but like the indomitable figure depicted on screen, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is strong, vital, and surprisingly dimensional. From the get-go, it's evident this track means business, and it sustains a high level of quality throughout the movie's course, providing an immersive, involving audio experience that greatly enhances this often staid and stodgy biopic. What impressed me most was the high degree of surround activity; the rear channels may not be constantly engaged, but they're utilized wisely and frequently, often pumping out distinct, pointed bits of dialogue and atmospherics, most notably in the House of Commons scenes. Stereo separation up front is also impressive, especially early in the film, as passing cars speed in various directions across the screen. Accents, such as a lint brush swiping over a suit, eggs boiling in water, and the popping of a champagne cork, possess a wonderful crispness of tone that heightens the impact of small moments.
Bass frequencies are potent, too, from the purposeful closing of book covers to IRA bombs that detonate at various times over the movie's course. A wide dynamic scale handles all the activity with ease, and even during the most cacophonous sequences, distortion is never an issue. Quiet moments, such as when Thatcher's staff discuss the prime minister's failing health in hushed tones down the hallway, are also finely rendered, and general dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to understand.
Thomas Newman's music score sounds robust, with plenty of fidelity and tonal depth, and it exudes an excellent surround presence. Echoes are also creatively integrated into the sound field, producing a striking effect. Never is this track complacent or content to funnel audio in a straightforward manner. For a film of this sort, this is a supremely active mix that's sure to thrill listeners and increase one's involvement in the story, themes, and performances. Whether rocking the house or tiptoeing ever so delicately, this track never makes a false move, and its detail, nuance, and power earn it high marks indeed.
A few featurettes spruce up this release, but there's a disturbing catch. After watching the making-of featurette, any astute viewer will notice the material in most of the subsequent pieces is culled from that same featurette. The maddening and reprehensible replication severely undermines the worth of this supplemental package. What should be interesting, even probing looks into the film's production become nothing more than time wasters, and for a historical biopic, that's a shame.
Though it may not rank with the best historical biopics, 'The Iron Lady' nevertheless features another mesmerizing performance from Meryl Streep, who justly won her third Oscar for her meticulous, bold portrayal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Phyllida Lloyd's film often falls frustratingly short, as it doesn't get under Thatcher's skin as much as we'd like, jumps around too much, and spends too much time chronicling Thatcher's increasing dementia, thus diluting what could have been a probing, insightful examination of a powerful world leader. More history and less delusions would have enhanced this movie, which always maintains interest but never really grabs us emotionally or intellectually, and that's a shame. A stunning lossless audio track does its best to pump up the excitement quotient, and good quality video allows us to savor the artistry of Streep's work. On the down side, repetitive and superficial supplements don't add anything to this disc, which is still certainly worth a look for Meryl maniacs and history buffs alike. Just don't expect a definitive portrait or searing point of view.