The second The Iron Lady was announced, Meryl Streep’s Oscar was already certified and ready to be awarded. Streep as Margaret Thatcher, England’s first female prime minister and a controversial political figure of the Cold War era, is the kind of part that breeds Oscars and putting the most nominated actress of all time in that part is a relative sure thing. Unfortunately, the script by Abi Morgan and direction by Phyllidia Lloyd is nowhere near as strong as it should be and all the film has is a strong central performance that feels all for naught.
It’s not necessarily the filmmakers’ fault per se. The biopic has been a lethargic prestige genre designed to get their lead performers award recognition and little else. It’s a sound strategy as Jamie Foxx can attest for his stirring performance in Ray. But be honest with yourself, what do you really recall of the film? The problem with the biopic is that it tries to take in too much of the person’s life. A film tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and end with a central theme linking all parts taking us to the end. Many of these biopics try to condense a whole life into those two hours not taking into account the major swings and turns that a life takes over the course of decades. In the end, the films make simplistic statements on their subjects but there’s little depth given and ultimately, at best, you have a turgid film with an actor at its center giving it their all and then some.
My preferred “biopics”, which I wouldn’t even necessarily classify as biopic, are the ones that take a small portion of that person’s life and build a story around that. The Stephen Frears’ The Queen pulls that off beautifully with its subject. Clint Eastwood’s recent J. Edgar fell into all of these traps and mistook a flashback framing device for a clever narrative. Lloyd makes the same mistake with The Iron Lady.
Margaret Thatcher is an old woman now suffering from dementia and the film presents that to disturbing effect. Disturbing in the sense that Thatcher is still alive and suffering from dementia so it all feels a bit too close but the filmmakers trudge along anyways. Much of the film is Streep in old woman’s makeup doddering around her house hallucinating her husband’s presence (Jim Broadbent in a slightly off-putting performance) and flashing back to her greatest hits and struggles throughout her life. Thatcher is one of the most controversial and fascinating political figures of the modern age and there are many avenues to explore in regards to her politics and the many events that took place over the course of her tenure as Prime Minister.
The film seems to care for none of it. We are given brief lip service to events such as the Falklands War and the terrorist actions of the IRA but they are disposed of quickly with a couple of scenes and quick montages of news footage and protesters. No, the main concern of this film is Thatcher as strong willed woman. That is not to say that it is not an important distinction that she was the first female Prime Minister but the film has such a singular focus on how difficult her climb to power was but little is given to what she did with that power and how she wielded it.
We are given brief flashes of the woman in command but it all falls back to a woman in a man’s world. It feels like the filmmakers were so afraid of offending one end of the spectrum or another that the politics of the film feel completely toothless. That is not to say the film should have put itself on one end or the other in judgment of her politics but the film never gives any real resolve for the audience to be disgusted or in praise of her either. She is merely a politician and if one were to take this film’s word for it, being a woman was the most important and volatile distinction of her career, which in favor of her or not, is decidedly not.
Streep is magnificent in the role of Thatcher but that was to be expected. It’s the degree to which she is excellent that needs to be measured and that can be a difficult to ascertain with performances based on real people. It can be easy, especially with such a widely known figure such as Margaret Thatcher, to fall into impersonation rather than inhabiting the role and Streep skirts that edge a few times through the film’s running time but in the end she comes out on the right side of it. Streep brings out the quiet dignity of Thatcher but also the graceful femininity that can be hard to note in a woman with such harsh features. The old age make-up is eerie in its capturing of Thatcher in her old age and one would not think they were watching Streep but rather they had snuck a small camera crew into Thatcher’s home to spy on her in her most vulnerable of states. That is something else that Streep does well that may not be so noticeable at first. There’s a vulnerability hidden just underneath the rough façade of Thatcher and Streep captures it just so.
Of course, this is all in service of a deeply uneven film that feels disjointed and haphazard at times. The editing between past and present puts the audience in mind of its dementia addled subject but not for better. Many moments in Thatcher’s life are represented but it all feels lacking as the film jumps from one end to the other with little rhyme or reason. What the film does well is give Streep a showcase for her Margaret Thatcher impersonation which is delightful and mesmerizing and gives the viewer a good idea of the struggle for a woman to reach such a powerful position at that time. Unfortunately, the rest of the film feels muddled and dull, never reaching any great depths or providing any great answers or wisdom about such a controversial figure. Some people love her, some people despise her, and this film is far too pleasant to rock the boat in either direction, making the entire film feel unnecessary in the process.