There are some honest moments in The Iron Lady. They are practically wordless and give us glimpses into a human routine—that of Margaret Thatcher and her current caretakers—that are extraordinarily moving. Unfortunately, these moments come mostly right at the movie’s beginning and conclusion. In between is a film that does nearly all it can to test the patience of the audience and to see exactly how little light it can shed on one of the most important political figures of the 20th century.
As a vehicle for Meryl Streep, a biopic about Margaret Thatcher appears something of a no-brainer. The movie-going public (particularly in the United States) is frequently quite happy to shave off the prickly particulars of a leader’s actual record in order to focus on the grand arc of her personal story. In this case, Streep first appears as Thatcher walking up to the counter in a corner store, rummaging through her purse for coins like any other elderly woman with slowed reflexes and a somewhat tenuous grasp of the modern world.
Back in her kitchen, Thatcher grouses about how expensive the milk is to her chuckling husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, as welcome a sight as ever). They bat a few lines back and forth, ordinary and at ease with one another after decades of marriage. But then reality intrudes, as we see a staffwoman berating the policeman at the front door with an automatic rifle for letting “Mrs. Thatcher” leave the premises. We also learn that Denis has in fact been dead for some time.
The Iron Lady unfolds as a layering of flashbacks, all springing off from Thatcher’s confused, elderly present. It’s an easy way to give the general outlines of her biography without having to build a coherent narrative structure for it. But the way the film jumps with imprecise attention to detail through Thatcher’s early life and rise to power doesn’t provide much dramatic momentum. Director Phyllida Lloyd has done most of her work for the stage, and it shows. The little tricks she uses to jump between time periods are amateurish at best, and having Denis wander through the film like Thatcher’s chorus is the kind of thing that might play well enough on stage, but feels like a cheap device here.
Such gimmicks can’t help Abi Morgan’s dismally thin and overwrought screenplay, which presents Thatcher as the plucky daughter of an equally plucky grocer, who inspired her to believe in personal responsibility and to buck the sexism and classism of the British establishment all the way to the top. That’s it. The only slightly negative shading the film allows us to see of Thatcher is that sometimes her ambition got in the way of her family’s happiness and that her forthrightness could morph quite easily into bullying and hectoring. But for those occasional and dutiful asides, Morgan’s screenplay is more like a political ad for a candidate than a work of fact-based fiction.
Thatcher was a profoundly controversial leader, to put it mildly. Reducing her to this caricature of outspokenness is not just uninformative and uninteresting, but also unfair to her legacy. As the British embodiment of the backlash conservative moment that took hold in the 1970s, Thatcher extolled the tenets of capitalism like they were a religion and made inflexibility her hallmark. When she said, “There is no such thing as society,” she revealed herself to be the harsher, colder, more Ayn Randish style of conservative, as compared to the avuncular character performed by her American counterpart Ronald Reagan.
But in The Iron Lady’s reading of history, Thatcher’s decision to go to war over Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands or her campaign to smash the unions (in particular the National Union of Mineworkers during the early ‘80s) encountered no complications or serious detractors. Instead, the film offers only Thatcher’s courageous and forthright leadership set against an endless succession of sexist old-timers who resist and then complain about her every decision. The film also shows a few IRA bombings, which put Thatcher herself in direct danger more than once (we see the one in her Brighton hotel in 1984), but never explains their contexts. Neither does it consider the backgrounds for the noisy street demonstrations that pop up on occasion. It’s all just there as noise for Thatcher to fight her way through. This is political theater at its most base. Even the pop psychologizing of Oliver Stone’s W is preferable.
Amid the din, Streep’s Thatcher is a woman deeply and rightfully proud of her stubbornness and work ethic (again and again, the movie points to her father’s lessons). She’s the kind of boss who will take an underling’s resignation letter and make edits with a pen while he’s still standing in front of her. As Streep inhabits this monumental figure at various ages, she seems perfectly comfortable in all of them. Unlike the actors in other biopics (J. Edgar comes to mind), she looks convincing under the old-age makeup, and not as though her face had been buried. It’s a well-honed performance in every sense, delivering Thatcher’s steeliness and her self-doubt in the same scene.
Even Streep’s formidable skills, however, are overwhelmed by the movie’s insistent focus on Thatcher’s legacy, here set against various stiff and barely explained historical tableaus so that she can stand tall and heroic. A chamber piece in which Streep and Broadbent simply chatted about Thatcher’s effects over toast and tea would have been just fine, thank you very much.