Just when you thought you were done being newly impressed with Meryl Streep, she embodies and completely captures Margaret Thatcher. In The Iron Lady, the life and troubled political career of Thatcher during her years as England’s Prime Minister is portrayed as a hybrid of political drama, historical pageant, mild satire, and make-up melodrama. Everyone knows what the latter is: ever since Citizen Kane, every filmmaker has sought to recreate that “Rosebud” feel of having a sprawling saga opened and capped by the lead figure covered in old age make-up, looking back with sad, regretful melancholy. It worked for Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin, it didn’t work for Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar and, despite the always impressive make-up, it definitely doesn’t work in this movie.
The film’s narrative bookend is Thatcher remembering her life with her dead husband, played by Jim Broadbent, hamming it up as the figment of her imagination. We’re never sure if we’re supposed to laugh or feel sorry for her while dementia seizes her during conversations with Denis the friendly ghost. It’s as awkward as it sounds and stalls the film out of the gate.
Once the film temporarily escapes the story’s framing device, it becomes a compelling, energetic, Best Of career montage and it works splendidly. The numerous historical recreations aren’t always shown in a way that clearly demonstrates their importance but they’re certainly exciting in the way they’re staged. It lacks the caustic stylization of an Oliver Stone movie but could have used the political fire, outrage, and passion of his films.
Thatcher is certainly an interesting character but those walking in unfamiliar with her career may walk out unclear as to why she was so controversial and groundbreaking. The specifics of her politics and decisions are downplayed here, with her gender and authority being questioned given emphasis over specific political choices and platforms.
Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd may not have been the best choice for a political character study but the look and feel is just right: the cockeyed camera angles in some scenes give the audience a you-are-there perspective, and the cinematography and score are gorgeous and epic-sized. The only moments that don’t work are the shots of Streep as Thatcher waving to the crowd from her limo, which cuts to scenes of people outside that are clearly stock footage.
This near-great biopic doesn’t quite come together but showcases what could be Streep’s greatest performance. Even with keeping A Cry in the Dark, Sophie’s Choice, Julie & Julia, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ironweed and The Devil Wears Prada in mind, Streep’s performance as Thatcher is a monumental achievement for the actress and an event to witness for her longtime fans. On the outside, Streep looks and sounds so much like Thatcher, you may forget you’re watching one of America’s greatest living actresses. Internally, she makes Thatcher a stubborn, focused, cold and occasionally inspiring piece of work. Whether you’re on board with Thatcher’s famously conservative politics or find her something of a monster, Streep’s balanced portrayal is sympathetic and the movie matches the tone her performance sets. Both ferocious and insecure, you may find yourself rooting for Thatcher because, if for no other reason, the obstacles and resistance she met throughout her life were enormous.
The film as a whole is as frustratingly uneven and intermittently fascinating as Thatcher is as a character. It come so close to being a Best Picture contender but, in the end, Streep’s performance is the film’s greatest asset and gives serious clout to a rickety costume drama.
Rated PG13/105 Min