Meryl Streep gives a great performance as the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, in The Iron Lady. It’s another uncanny celebrity inhabitation, like her Julia Child in Julie & Julia, in which what could easily have been nothing but imitation (and don’t get me wrong, it is imitation) goes much further with a genuine spark of emotional interiority. She’s utterly compelling, a flesh and blood human presence at the center of what would otherwise be a totally flat history lesson. What’s a shame about this film is how it so completely lets Streep down. It’s great acting in a film that’s little more than a rote biopic mediocrity. And that’s too bad.
Like Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, this is a film that tackles a controversial figure of fairly recent history by placing the narrative near the end of life. Here, Streep is in layers of convincing old-age makeup as Thatcher, slowly succumbing to her dementia, has flashes of memories that, luckily for us, progress in a rough chronological order. We see her as a young woman (Alexandra Roach) first getting interested in politics through her grocer father’s conservative stump speeches.
On the evening of her first (failed) election, Thatcher sits despondent until a charming young colleague (Harry Lloyd) that she’s been sort of dating sidles up to her and proposes marriage. That’s quite the consolation prize. They stay married until his death, eight years before we first see the elderly Thatcher in the opening scene. Throughout the film she hallucinates his presence as a sweet, daffy, amiable old man (Jim Broadbent) who gives her someone to talk to as we move in and out of flashbacks.
We see Thatcher as a housewife with two small children who soon wins a seat in Parliament, then becomes Secretary of Education, and, finally, Prime Minister. Key events play out in matter-of-fact reenactments that plod along one after the other. Fighting against institutionalized sexism? Advocating for spending cuts during a recession? Reacting to IRA bombings? Commanding a conflict in the Falkland Islands? Each political scuffle is dramatized and discarded. The film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, a theater director who made her feature debut with Mamma Mia!, one of the worst directed films in recent memory. Iron Lady doesn’t suffer that fate. It looks rather nice and is an entirely watchable film, a handsomely inert historical scrapbook.
I wasn’t bored; I just wasn’t all that interested. Instead of building into a larger, more nuanced, portrait of a political figure for which there were strong opinions on both sides, the thin script by Abi Morgan tries to walk straight down the middle in a way that only muddles its message and dims the admirable humanity that Streep brings. It’s possible to feel sympathy for a figure of ambiguously negative historical impact without condoning the actions taken. (See the aforementioned J. Edgar). But this film, try as it might, can’t get out of its own way to get there.
The film is devoted to detailing her rise and fall as a political figure but it’s strange to see how glancingly the film deals with her actual politics. This is the biggest source of the film’s muddling. Refusing to take a stance or form an opinion on her policies, let alone fully explaining them, reduces the film to scenes of buzzwords and hackneyed political turns of phrase. We never get a sense from the film as to the substances of her political decisions so that by the time Londoners are rioting we don’t get a good sense as to why. Outside knowledge is a necessity to decoding the film, which only makes its failings clearer. By not exploring the political ideologies and historical context of Thatcher’s reign, it’s an implicit endorsement that doesn’t sit too well with me.
I respect her accomplishments while not agreeing with most of what she did once she was in power. But the movie neither affirms nor challenges my preconceived notions of Thatcher. By not exploring her legacy, the film hedges itself into a corner. It’s may be a movie about a tough woman, a determined woman, an iron lady, if you will, but it’s a fatally soft movie that all but disappears on impact. It has no point of view, nothing to say, nothing it wants to explore, nothing, even, that it particularly wants to show us. If it weren’t for Meryl Streep giving it her all, the film would be hardly worth mentioning. Her performance is moving and memorable in ways the film can only pretend to be.