“Is there anything Meryl Streep can’t do?” has become the cinematic equivalent of praising the achievements of scientific geniuses like Albert Einstein, maverick writers like Ernest Hemingway or visionary artists like Pablo Picasso. Of course, as with everything the aforementioned men did, anything Streep does is accompanied by shouts of “overrated” and “over praised”. Even she has turned her constant showers of critical hosannas into a self-deprecating sport.
Yet watching her onscreen often reminds us of the reason why we go to the movies. She has mastered the art of mimicry and turned it into a postmodernist statement, with all her biographical characters shifting from their actual selves into the representations Streep gave of them (anyone actually remembers what Susan Orlean looks like, or are you all thinking Streep doing drugs in Adaptation?) This is meant as no disrespect to the actual people she plays of course, but it should lead Streep detractors to wonder if maybe they’re not missing out on something.
How is it that people are still obsessing about an actress who has been delivering genius work for almost four decades? Why is it that there was such a furor over her “need” to win a third Academy Award when there are people who have never won a single one? Why is it that her performances are literally critic-proof even if her movies are usually less than brilliant? Answering these questions might be a bit simpler when analyzing Streep’s work in The Iron Lady, an unarguably reductive portrayal of former British Prime minister Margaret Thatcher that finally won Streep a second Best Actress Oscar (her previous win had been in 1982 for her iconic work in Sophie’s Choice).
The Iron Lady simply never works as a movie, given that Abi Morgan’s screenplay and Phyllida Lloyd’s inadequate direction turn Thatcher’s life into a series of political “greatest hits”, which essentially means that we never get enough time to figure out who the title lady was as a human being, or even who the politician was, for that matter. Her entire life is reduced to landmarks: we watch her defy odds as a “grocer’s daughter” to become an influential politician; we watch her become the “man” in her marriage as she imposes herself over her husband (played by Jim Broadbent) and; we watch her declare war on Argentina to reclaim the Falklands etc.
Regardless of one’s political views, it has become a rule of democracy, that even people widely considered as “villains” should get a chance to defend themselves; of course this becomes absolutely subjective in art where its creators feel the need to deliver messages that can range from harsh political statements to apolitical “what if” stories. With someone as controversial as Thatcher this is even more poignant because her deeds have a certain urgency because of their recentness. In previous biographical roles, Streep has started using the same technique she has practiced with completely fictitious creations: she latches on to something that makes these people unique and amplifies it.
In Julie and Julia, Streep grabbed the Julia Child of our memories and played specifically on that, making us wonder how much of a celebrity is a creation and how much is them being “themselves”. In Doubt she shamelessly swallowed the scenery just to show how fanatical religion makes people enter delusional states of omnipotence. As Thatcher, she perfects the talk, walk and poise and quite literally turns this woman into an impenetrable creature. She does not hesitate for a second and the entire movie has a hard time trying to live up to her expertise. She is never “moving” or “touching”, instead she shies away from judging this woman.
Watching The Iron Lady, you cannot say if Streep is supporting or accusing Thatcher. She just plays the vision she saw of her, her Thatcher is so determined that you can think she’s a villain or admire her. She does turn her character into a democratic being, everyone can judge her according to their own personal beliefs.The movie’s framing device shows her as an aging woman struck by dementia and even in these scenes, the wonderful actress remains faithful to her portrayal of Thatcher during her prime: persistent, determined, arrogant even, but never faltering in the way she thought her life should be lived.
The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay have done a decent job with the Blu-ray release of the movie. The pack includes a DVD copy as well as a digital copy in case you have the urge to watch some Thatcher on the road and despite the richness of the discussions that could be generated by a figure like Maggie, this release mostly is dedicated to the goddess Streep. The film looks wonderful in high definition, although it was never truly a visual feast. Saturation is down to a minimum and Streep’s prosthetic teeth shine like the pearls her character wears.
Bonus features include a series of featurettes highlighting the production team’s achievements in recreating ‘80s England and the only times they try to address actual history, it is filtered through PR and cast interviews. One of the most curious featurettes is a PR piece about The Weisntein Company’s recent obsession with history. The short feature has clips and interviews about movies like My Week with Marilyn, W.E. and The Artist and tries to showcase the Weinsteins’ preoccupation with preserving history for the future. The one true thing revealed in this featurette is how they have mastered the art of glossy biopics made in the name of Oscar. A questionable move, of course, but one that does more justice to politics than the whole of The Iron Lady does.