‘Iron’ Deficiency: A Supernatural Thriller About Margaret Thatcher

(Films discussed in this post: I Don’t Know How She Does It, The Arbor, Colombiana, The Iron Lady.)

In 2011, there were plenty of movies about scheming, boozing bad girls like the out-of-control flock of Bridesmaids or the self-destructive prom queen in Young Adult (see my post on “The Chicks”). Fun, right?

To counterbalance this, though, we also need that are properly progressive in feminist terms — the medicine to Bridesmaids & co’s spoonful of sugar. Which I’m all for, in theory.

In practice, however, 2011’s lineup of silver screen glass ceiling-breakers left something to be desired.

First, a shameless confession: Sarah Jessica Parker falls into that category of actors I will watch in movies I would never, under other circumstances, bother with — just for a glimmer of what I enjoyed about them in a previous role on TV. Another three-named Sarah in this category? Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oh, the low-budget, direct-to-DVD shlock I suffered through just to see “Buffy” again.

That’s how I ended up watching I Don’t Know How She Does It — though really, that’s no excuse. Based on the chick lit novel by Allison Pearson, the story has been repackaged as a Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle written by The Devil Wears Prada scribe Aline Brosh McKenna. It was marketed, essentially, as a romantic comedy minus the romance — meaning that it centered on a hapless woman who was a bundle of neuroses, interacting with a couple handsome co-stars (Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan), except she’s already married — and anyone expecting Sex & The City-style hanky-panky was kidding themselves. The Devil Wears Prada also succeeded as a female-driven comedy that wasn’t too concerned with its heroine’s love life, but The Devil Wears Prada also had a secret weapon: Meryl Streep. How good would The Devil Wears Prada be without the Miranda Priestly character? About as good as I Don’t Know How She Does It.On Netflix, I Don’t Know How She Does It is described as an “affable yuppie comedy,” which is how you know you’re in trouble. Affable yuppie comedy? Jesus. How horrible does that sound? That’s the best they could do? Now, from what I understand, the novel was perfectly charming. I can see how it might be (it’s British, after all). As a movie, though, the premise is mystifying. I Don’t Know How She Does It‘s protagonist is Kate Reddy — happily married, has a great career in finance, and even has a nanny to help out with her kids. That’s it. That’s all the movie is about. It’s just a bunch of people (including Christina Hendricks and Busy Phillips, talent wasted) looking at the camera in awe, saying, “I don’t know how she does it!” over and over. (Sarah Jessica Parker also jarringly talks directly to camera sometimes; didn’t the first season of Sex & The City teach us anything?)

Maybe back in the 70’s or 80’s, it would have been a revelation to make a movie about a woman who had a man, children, and a job. (Wow!) But in the 21st century, we are pretty well over Kate “doing it” right from the start. Yes, I’m sure juggling motherhood and a career is challenging, but I Don’t Know How She Does It makes Kate’s obstacles look pretty damn surmountable. The big climax of the movie is Kate rushing home “in time” to make snow angels with her daughter. I’m not kidding — that is the climax of the movie.Along the way to this riveting conclusion, there are subplots about Kelsey Grammer being a mildly gruff boss, Seth Myers being a mildly threatening competitor for Kate’s job, and Kate’s assistant (Olivia Munn) mildly considering an abortion because Kate makes motherhood seem horrifying. I Don’t Know How She Does It‘s idea of “conflict” is a little light sexual tension between Kate and her new boss, played by Pierce Brosnan. Hmm — Pierce Brosnan? Really? Are we honestly supposed to believe Kate would even consider jeopardizing her marriage with him? I mean, maybe in the 90’s. Maybe when he was James Bond. It worked in Mrs. Doubtfire, but that was 1993.

Meanwhile, Greg Kinnear gets the annoying “naggy wife” role usually played by women, always complaining about how his spouse is “never there” in what might be the most tired, forced conflict in cinema history. Wives in movies are always whining about how their husband works. How dare he have a job? The nerve of that guy, providing for his wife and children! I Don’t Know How She Does It flips that around without making it any more novel or less annoying. Yes, goddammit, Kate has a high-paying career and that occasionally means she has to actually work. Now will the husband and children please stop whining and shut up about it?To be clear, I Don’t Know How She Does It is not a bad movie in the classic sense. It is competently made and acted; it all goes down smoothly and painlessly, like an average episode of a decent CBS sitcom. Especially if you are at least a moderate fan of Sarah Jessica Parker. But after it was over, I puzzled over what it was supposed to be about, why anybody felt this story was relevant in 2011. I came up empty-handed. I suppose those who were casting it thought it was brilliant to beat Sex & The City 3 to the punch by showing what Carrie Bradshaw would be like if she had kids. Now raise your hand if you’d like to see what Carrie Bradshaw would be like if she had kids. Okay? No one? Well, then.

Who cares how she does it? Plenty of women have done plenty more worth wondering about than Kate Reddy. I can imagine any of the maids in The Help rolling their eyes at the very premise of this movie, muttering, “Bitch, please.” Lisbeth Salander would hack into Kate’s computer and steal all her money just to give her something to really whine about. Sure, there is a mild chuckle or two derived from the fact that “Carrie Bradshaw” now has lice, and I give Parker credit for not trotting out the high fashion and handbags like you might expect in a Sarah Jessica Parker movie. She actually looks surprisingly dowdy, dressing a lot more like a real working mom than a movie star who is only pretending to be a working mom. There is even a very visible line between her highlights from a few months ago and her dark roots — how “working mom”-ish! And with that, we have answered the movie’s central question. Kate skips salon appointments that any movie star in her right mind would have kept to eliminate those roots before shooting began. There. Mystery solved. That’s how she does it. Next?Next is Colombiana, a Luc Besson-produced action-thriller I’m sure had no ambitions about being a “feminist” film. But with movies like this, you can’t help but read into the gender reversal. Entertainment involving female assassins can be a lot of fun, such as 2011’s superb Hanna, or at least moderately diverting, like this year’s Haywire. Or — it can be an implausible mess, like Colombiana. Zoe Saldana plays Cataleya (it means “orchid”), whose parents were gunned down by drug dealers when she was a girl — which we see in the absurdly lengthy prologue (it runs nearly half an hour). Also absurdly, the movie begins in 1992 and then flashes forward fifteen years — to 2007? Why is this movie set in 2007? Probably because it was written then, and everyone was just too lazy to do the math and figure out how to update it. This leads to all sorts of anachronisms (as IFC’s Matt Singer pointed out) that only highlight how little this movie cares about itself.

As an adult, Cataleya devotes her entire life to finding the bad man who killed her parents, offing a number of equally-bad people in the process. Michael Vartan gets the thankless role of playing “the girl” — aka, the ultra-sensitive, too-good-to-be-true boyfriend who is impossibly in love with Cataleya even though she tells him nothing of her past. (Or that she’s on a murderous vengeance spree — but even when he finds out, he’s totally fine with it.) The main problem with Colombiana is that we the audience don’t particularly care whether or not Cataleya gets her revenge. In fact, we would rather she just… not. Marry that handsome Vartan fella, Cataleya! Move on and make a nice life for yourrself! I wasn’t sure why, exactly, her parents were killed, but I imagine they were involved in some shady business if they were working with a drug dealer. Saldana is a capable actress, always watchable, but Colombiana takes itself dead-seriously considering what it is. Doesn’t director Olivier Megaton (yes, seriously, that’s his name) know these movies are supposed to be fun? Apart from one ugly death involving a pool full of sharks, Colombiana is a pretty dull affair; we’re always on the outside looking in, never actively engaged by Cataleya as a character.

But really. This is the kind of movie where it might be handy to have Christina Hendricks around to marvel, “I don’t know how she does it!” Because we literally have no idea. Questioning it would probably only lead us to discover that the movie makes no sense.

Which brings us to the crown jewel of 2011’s feminist film slate — or so you’d think. A biopic of Margaret Thatcher, the first and only woman to ever be elected as prime minister of Great Britain? A humble grocer’s daughter who broke through the glass ceiling with her refusal to adhere to gender stereotypes? A wife, mother, and controversial political figure all rolled into one? Now there’s a lady we can all say, “I don’t how she does it!” about.

Well, I just saw The Iron Lady, and I still don’t know how she does it, because the movie makes no attempt to explain it. Contrary to the marketing, this is not a biopic about Margaret Thatcher. It’s a psychological horror movie about an old woman haunted by the ghost of her long-dead husband; the fact that she used to be prime minister of is incidental. (I believe the word you’re searching for is: “What?!” Me, too.)

Yes, The Iron Lady is a misfire — of course, through no fault of its leading lady, the consistently marvelous Meryl Streep, continuing her streak of being a thousand times better than the movies she’s in. (When, oh when, will we get another Meryl Streep film that’s actually worthy of its star?) It’s the film’s shaky premise that sinks this whole affair; the very concept is baffling, choosing to focus on what must be one of the very least interesting aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s story — her life now. (Yes, she’s still alive.) At least half the story is occupied by Streep playing Thatcher as an old woman with dementia, chatting with her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) in increasingly spooky scenes. There’s even a jump-scare!

Man, oh man. If there was ever a movie I didn’t expect a “gotcha!” in, it was The Iron Lady.The film starts out reasonably well, with Thatcher as an old woman buying milk in a convenience store. She’s cut in front of by a man who clearly has no idea that this dotty old lady used to be the most powerful woman in the country. Great. Then Thatcher returns home and we learn she’s not even supposed to leave the house on her own; we also get her first chat with dead Denis, and it’s all downhill from there. This “talking to the deceased” angle feels tired, but if The Iron Lady had truly decided to focus exclusively on Thatcher’s elderly years, that might have been a valid choice. But writer Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd want to have their cake and talk to its ghost, too — the movie tries to jam Margaret Thatcher’s entire life into the other half of the movie, which, as you’d imagine, is adequate time to examine exactly zero aspects of her political career insightfully.

What this means is a number of montages that crudely incorporate real-life news footage into scenes of Margaret Thatcher walking up and down a long corridor surrounded by nameless men. This means very little to anyone who isn’t already an expert in 20th century British history; you’ll learn nothing about it here. In one scene, one of Thatcher’s friends is killed in a car bombing. In a later scene, Margaret and her husband are very nearly the victims of another explosion. Who is responsible, and why? Oh, don’t worry about it — the film never elaborates or mentions either event again. The Iron Lady offers less illumination on Margaret Thatcher’s politics than a quick glance at Wikipedia; the film zooms through the most interesting 50 years of Thatcher’s life at a breakneck pace in order to consistently strand us in the three-day window during which old Margaret is trying to clean out her dead husband’s closet while his specter is haranguing her (and us). Seriously — this is what this woman’s life boils down to?The Iron Lady is a tremendously frustrating viewing experience, because every time something interesting happens in Thatcher’s past, Lloyd insists on taking us back to have a chat with a figment of Margaret’s imagination — none of which gives us any new or revealing information about Thatcher. The device is grotesquely overused, but never with any apparent purpose, since there is almost no connectivity between the flashbacks and the scenes set in the present thematically. The Denis character is hardly present at all in flashbacks; if this movie is supposed to be about Margaret mourning his loss, why are the flashbacks not also about him? The same goes for Margaret’s kids — in the end, she mutters a lot over wishing she’d spent more time mothering them, but we barely see them, so who cares?

In this way, The Iron Lady feels like two vastly different movies badly spliced together. The glimpses of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office are so scattered and irrelevant and out of context, it basically portrays the entirety of Great Britain’s 20th century as a loony old lady’s fever dream, or perhaps a poorly-conceived music video. And all the while, we have Broadbent — a wonderful actor saddled with an atrocious part — popping up in manic, increasingly cartoonish attempts at levity. It’s like watching a History channel special about Margaret Thatcher intercut with a Roadrunner cartoon. Every time we feel like we’re finally getting to know something interesting about the Iron Lady — “meep meep!”

It’s hard to imagine why anyone thought this was the best approach for what could have been a fascinating movie. The title becomes ironic when The Iron Lady places all its focus on a brittle old woman grieving over her husband, but if that’s intentional, it’s not done well. A few scenes show promise, mostly when Lloyd lets Streep run with Thatcher’s prickly personality, barking orders at her underlings — The Prime Minister Wears Prada, anyone? But the supporting characters are so thinly developed, they’re practically nonexistent. (Buffy‘s Anthony Head is one of many “generic politicians” at Margaret’s side, but the movie is too busy weaving back and forth through time to bother introducing any of them.) Phyllida Lloyd’s direction is heinously distracting, overusing subjective camera at inopportune moments and seldom letting a scene linger long enough to achieve an emotional effect. Lloyd, who also directed Streep in Mamma Mia!, seems more concerned with finding artsy camera angles than telling a cohesive story. You get the feeling she really wanted The Iron Lady to be another Meryl Streep musical. It’s like a song-free Evita. Enticing, right?

The Iron Lady isn’t so much a bad movie as it is a missed opportunity to make a far better one; Streep, at least, was up to the challenge. The film was Oscar-nominated both for her performance and the makeup, and both of these elements do come together seamlessly so that we actually believe Streep as an elderly woman losing her mind. (J. Edgar tried a similar trick this year on Leonardo DiCaprio with less successful results.)

But you can’t help but think Thatcher herself would be appalled by this movie, and not because of the way it depicts her “iron” side; but rather, its insistence on portraying her as a hapless crazy bat, not a politician to be reckoned with. The film’s climax has nothing to do with Thatcher’s career — it’s that old supernatural cliche, with the apparition of her husband walking off into a blinding white light. Ugh. In one very good scene, Margaret complains to her doctor that people care more about feelings than thoughts; the movie makes the same error, going soft when you’d expect something sturdier and grittier from a movie called The Iron Lady. This is a film with a serious iron deficiency.

The opposite is true of Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, which, like The Iron Lady, tells the true story of a young British woman who transcended humble roots to achieve unlikely things. Like The Iron Lady, The Arbor relies on some surreal filmmaking to tell its story; unlike The Iron Lady, The Arbor does it inventively and competently. The Arbor is an experimental documentary, a description which just ruled out 95% of mainstream moviegoers from ever seeing it. Oh well — their loss. It’s the story of Andrea Dunbar, who managed to write three plays about growing up in “the Arbor” — a slum of Yorkshire, England — before her death at the age of 29; her plays are about her own life growing up as what some might refer to as “poor white trash.”

Barnard interviewed many, including Dunbar’s three children, for the film. But instead of show us these interviews, The Arbor has actors lip-syncing to the interviews, often in a self0consciously stagey way; it’s a strange conceit, but it works, in part because Dunbar’s plays were so closely modeled on her own life that it’s just another form of art representing real life. (We are also treated to a few scenes from her plays, acted out in the actual Arbor.) The Arbor delves deep into the ways this rough upbringing causes some to self-destruct and others to push harder to persevere; near the end, it swerves a little too far into “misery porn,” having already made its point long before it’s over. (The story of Andrea’s daughter Lorraine — a prostitute and heroin addict and worse — is tragic, but it’s Andrea and her artistic purging of an unhappy childhood that is the true heart of the movie; her daughter’s story feels a tad off-topic.)

Still, The Arbor is a one-of-a-kind documentary and certainly worth a gander. It leaves us surprised, but a little hopeful, that Dunbar managed to find any salvation at all from such a bleak upbringing. I don’t know how she did it, but The Arbor doesn’t ask. There are more pertinent questions on its mind.The Arbor: A documentary that feels like theater.

The Iron Lady: Not nearly tough enough.

I Don’t Know How She Does It: I don’t know why I watched it.

Colombiana: It’s no Hanna.

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