Casting Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher is a brilliant stroke for Phyllida Lloyd in her biopic of Britain’s first female prime minister, but then again, the decision is something of a no-brainer. All apologies to the many terrific and capable English actresses out there, but Streep, who can bury her American-ness at will, is terrific, perfectly capturing the steel of the grocer’s daughter-turned-union buster who remains one of the more polarizing political figures in British history.
If only all of the decisions regarding The Iron Lady had been so successful. Streep is Oscar-worthy here, as she almost always is, which is hardly a surprise, and the historic subject matter is fascinating whichever way your politics may lean. But the film makes an odd choice in how it frames Thatcher’s life. The script, written by Abi Morgan — who collaborated with director Steve McQueen on the screenplay for Shame — focuses not on Thatcher’s determined climb up the political ladder nor her battles with trade unions, the Soviet Union (which gave her that descriptive nickname) or rival politicians.
Instead, we see her mostly in her later years in retirement, as she slips in and out of the grasp of dementia. The device is evocative to a certain extent; there’s great pathos to be found in images of someone who changed the face of history laid low by infirmity. But the film neglects the more intriguing aspects of Thatcher’s life for maudlin scenes and quick biographical sketches that only hint at why this woman became the force that she was.
The film opens with a scene powerful in its ordinary scope: A small, unimpressive elderly woman with a kerchief tied around her head pops over to the local shop to purchase some milk. She expresses surprise at the price (so high!) and glances at the newspaper headlines about a bombing (so violent!), a minor frustration to the busy and distracted patrons around her. This is Margaret Thatcher, diminished and unrecognizable, still possessing enough gumption to sneak out of her house when her handlers are supposed to prevent such lapses.
The scene, swift though it is, evokes a sense of loss and purpose. But then Margaret returns home to share breakfast with her dead husband Denis (the great Jim Broadbent), who will reappear throughout the film, a tiresome concept that even two supremely gifted performers can’t elevate. Streep, of course, is game for the challenge of sharing a scene with a character no one else can see; she talks to him while slyly keeping an eye on the assistants who would frown on such delusional behavior, alert and lively under impressive old-age makeup. At least the prosthetics are fantastic; you won’t find any distracting J. Edgar-style problems here.
The film jumps around through Thatcher’s life, revealing the insults of her youth (fashionable girls didn’t have to work at their father’s grocery); her rise to become a force in local, then national, conservative politics at a time when women were still expected to stay home with the children; her refusal to bend to the desires and whims of others for the sake of expediency. But too many of the scenes are mere snapshots: We see her graciously and amusingly refuse to give up her signature pearls, but we get no real idea how she eventually fell out of favor with the party. The Iron Lady never delves deeply enough into the politics or the people, preferring instead to make us feel bad about the unfortunate way in which old age levels us all.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Richard Grant.
Director: Phyllida Lloyd.
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan.
Producer: Damian Jones.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 105 minutes. Some violent images, brief nudity. Opens Friday Jan. 13 at area theaters