The wonder and terror of Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady is her formidable ability to nail the disheartening talents of not just Margaret Thatcher, but so many conservative politicians like her, who have a tremendous knack for changing minds and beckoning cheers while underlining their own rigid ignorance. As riveting to watch as ever, Streep is scarily convincing, just as Thatcher was, when offering growling, idealistic justifications for aggressive, divisive actions, like continuing to slash public spending and sending troops to die in the Falklands War on the apparent basis of bitter principle (her proud utterance of “I want [the Falklands] back” is followed by the revelation that it was Thatcher who arrogantly reduced the Islands’ naval defenses in the first place). In private meetings with concerned top advisors, who corner her to address such things as the devastating recession and unemployment rate that would stain her 11-year stint as Great Britain’s prime minister, Streep’s Thatcher still impresses while adamantly blocking out any voice but her own, giving a simple phrase of “right prevailing over wrong” a ring of gross narrow-mindedness, and redirecting attention to petty, irrelevant points. (Her assurance that her finger’s on the pulse of society and commerce? She knows how much butter costs.)
The Iron Lady is a fair and fascinating portrait, depicting Thatcher as determined rock star and out-of-touch monster in just about equal measure. Less flattering declarations are offered alongside undeniably virtuous ones, like a show-stopping monologue in a doctor’s office, where an elderly, dementia-battling Thatcher schools her physician on the excess of emotion in modern government, and Streep, positively nailing you to your seat, gives her own brand of authoritative evidence that in no way is this woman without quality of character. The film essentially kicks off in full Oscar-campaign mode, with roaring applause accompanying the logos for the scads of production companies that teamed with Harvey Weinstein, and Streep first appearing in baity old-age makeup. Not to be outdone by rival Michelle Williams, who captures three shades of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, the Oscar queen clinches her own actorly trifecta, playing Thatcher as an aged and reminiscent homebody, an emerging and ambitious political player, and a malleable top-spot candidate who must trade her hats and Julia Child-like vocal crests for the stern persona that would become her trademark (the transformation, which boasts the fun of watching Streep get into character, is cut from the same find-your-voice cloth as The King’s Speech). As a performance vehicle, The Iron Lady is unmissable, with Streep delivering multiple scenes of fierce, brilliantly overacted mimicry capable of reducing the whole theater to a wowed hush.
As a piece of filmmaking, though, it’s a kitschy bag of biopic tricks, with oodles of exposition unfurled in every diegetic way imaginable. The present-day flashback device is accompanied by Thatcher’s hallucinatory interactions with her late husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent); ghostly visions of her children running around the home to which her assistants strive to confine her; screenings of home movies whose presence serves gaps that didn’t even need filling; and visits from Thatcher’s daughter, Carol (Tyrannosaur‘s marvelously gifted Olivia Colman, who continues to summon crushing tears without a hint of effort). Showing only spurts of improvement over her unholy debut, Mamma Mia!, British director Phyllida Lloyd steers Shame co-screenwriter Abi Morgan’s script like a chronic hoarder cum tenderfoot feminist, adding newsreel footage and radio broadcasts to the pile while visualizing Thatcher’s penetration of the man’s world of Parliament with a mess of archaic, overly sarcastic shots (“Men Only” signs, a pair of heels amid countless wingtips, the perpetually blue-clad Thatcher shuffled through the crowd like a Smurf among ants). Handed the worst of the movie’s theme-spewing is 23-year-old Alexandra Roach, whose campaign-slogan dialogue as young Thatcher is just about as hokey as a postwar, ABBA-esque montage that sees Streep dance with bad lookalikes of Ronald Reagan and Nelson Mandela—the point at which you might say The Iron Lady jumps the shark.
Surely no one expected this movie to be masterful, as Streep has made it rather clear that she’s not much interested in working with filmmakers whose talents might outshine her own. Thus, to employ two words that seem to have habitually introduced Thatcher’s philosophies, one must look past Lloyd’s piecemeal technique and Morgan’s explanatory shortcomings to appreciate the material, digging instead into the implied motivations of the subject. The Iron Lady presents Thatcher’s humble upbringing as the daughter of a conservative, politically active grocer as the source of both noble pride and damaging obtuseness, with her father (Iain Glen) instilling a dogged work ethic, but also a survival-of-the-fittest insensitivity toward socioeconomic inequality (in the film’s most heated scene, which forecasts Thatcher’s political downfall, the PM is possessed by her father’s because-I-said-so worldview, scrambling to pick up the pieces of a crumbling rant about basically hating her poor detractors). Political films have a way of always finding relevance, and surely the folks behind this one knew they were sitting on something with recessionary gravity. But given the recent uprisings that may just as well have been pulled from this movie’s mob footage, The Iron Lady is surprisingly inflammatory, amplifying concerns that the power elite believe the world is balanced simply because they know the price of butter.