Audiences expecting a hatchet job in “The Iron Lady,” the new biopic of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep, are going to be disappointed. Somewhat less disappointed, perhaps, will be Thatcher’s supporters. Probably most disappointed of all will be those of us hoping for more than an elegantly mummified, vaguely pro-Tory retelling of Thatcher’s life and career focusing on her dotage days.
Yes, I know, Streep is, as always, pitch perfect. Much like her Julia Child in “Julie and Julia,” she goes way beyond impersonation. But even Streep can’t single-handedly give depth and nuance to a movie so briskly content with skimming surfaces both political and psychological.
“The Queen” and “The King’s Speech,” the most celebrated British historical dramas of recent years, made the smart decision to frame their narratives within a fairly tight time frame. Within that frame we saw entire lives played out in miniature; there was no need to reach back (or forward) in time because the immediate present vivified everything we needed to know about the characters.
In “The Iron Lady,” the framing action begins in 2005 around the time of the London terrorist attacks. Thatcher, having served from 1979 to 1990 as British prime minister before mounting unpopularity forced her resignation, is depicted as a semisenile old woman who imagines her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is still by her side. She also, at various times, imagines she is still equipped with the powers of prime minister.
What saves these sequences from being cruel or camp is Streep’s emotional investiture in the role. Even though the aging makeup is not wonderful, she manages to poke through the latex (or whatever it is) and show us a woman who is still, when she snaps to reality, a formidable force.
Interspersing these modern-day scenes director Phyllida Lloyd, who last worked with Streep on the ga-ga “Mamma Mia!,” rolls out Thatcher’s life in boringly chronological fashion. We see young Margaret (well played by Alexandra Roach) as a grocer’s daughter who attends Oxford, enters Parliament in 1959, and successfully challenges Edward Heath (John Sessions) for leadership of the Conservative Party. Occasional newsreel clips punctuate the action, which encompasses a vast flurry of Thatcher’s greatest hits: the financial deregulations and privatizations, the attacks on trade unions, the miners’ strike of 1983, the poll tax riots of 1990, the Falklands escapade. Just to show that it wasn’t all bad times, there is also a brief, obligatory shot of her dancing at a state function with Ronald Reagan.
Possibly Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan intended all this turmoil as an implicit criticism of Thatcherism. Or maybe, because of the indomitable way in which Thatcher is portrayed, they positioned it as a backhanded justification of her policies. Who knows? Cameron McCracken, one of the film’s corporate presenters, has said: “Our challenge is to let people know that it's not a political film … absolutely not a forensic examination of Thatcherism. It’s a portrait of a woman coming to terms with her loss of power and identity, which is a universal story.”
It may indeed be a universal story, but Thatcher was very much a singular individual with a large historical footprint. Attempting to portray her as an extraordinary ordinary human being, as opposed to a prime minister, doesn’t work when the person and the politician are as entwined as they are here. Since neither the psychological nor the political portraiture cuts very deep, we’re left with a movie that probably won’t do much of anything for either Thatcher idolators or haters. (The people who have no opinion about her one way or the other will probably be the most bored.)
Perhaps sensing this failure at the root of the film’s conception – which reduces Thatcher to a dotty lioness in winter in thrall to her dead husband’s image –Streep occasionally brings a welcome loopiness to her performance. It’s as if she decided to toss the baggage she’s been saddled with and have a good time. Who can blame her?
It’s possible to make a movie about a controversial political figure and have all the warring political factions, for different reasons, embrace it. The classic example of this is “Patton,” which was both beloved by liberals and Richard Nixon’s favorite movie. But this sort of thing is only possible when the movie gives us ample ammunition. “The Iron Lady” is too bland to be controversial, too antiquated to speak to the present. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity.)