There is one reason to see The Iron Lady, a strange biopic about Margaret Thatcher. As expected, Meryl Streep has immersed herself so completely in the leading role that it is hard to imagine the real Thatcher as anything other than a doddering old woman, who talks to her dead husband and occasionally remembers her glory years.
With her masterfully applied geriatric makeup, perfect Thatcher accent, and numerous close ups, Streep creates a believable portrait of a kinder, gentler Thatcher than Thatcher’s detractors are likely to accept. Rarely has there been a more polarizing political figure — hero to the ideological right, monster to the left — but by focusing on Thatcher in her later years, suffering from dementia, the filmmakers and Streep unavoidably create a sympathetic portrait of the tough-minded woman who took on Britain’s male establishment and won.
Between the screenplay’s focus on the dementia of Thatcher’s later years and Streep’s innate likeability, the Margaret Thatcher of The Iron Lady is a mere shadow of the intellectually brilliant, shrewd tactician who fought Britain’s unions, the Argentinian junta, the IRA and, ultimately, her own allies. Streep is such an appealing screen presence that, save for one scene where she icily berates her ministers, her Thatcher lacks the brittle arrogance that made the real Thatcher such a commanding presence on the world stage.
Streep’s presence overpowers the film, but it’s a pity she doesn’t have better material to work with. Screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd have created a persona in her declining years, with news footage and reenactments of Thatcher’s triumphs and defeats haphazardly thrown in as transitional scenes. The references to Thatcher’s career are such a mash up of demonstrations, fires, explosions, and boisterous parliamentary debates that anyone without a thorough knowledge of Britain during the Thatcher years is likely to be confused by what actually happened and unable to fully comprehend the profound and lasting effect she had on Britain.
That’s truly a shame. Such an important and fascinating figure deserves more serious and more coherent treatment. What exactly was going through Thatcher’s mind when she ordered the British attack on the Falklands? The long seconds the camera lingers on Streep’s face during “the decision” provides no clues. How did she arrive at her views on the economy, which propelled the actions she took that ultimately destroyed Britain’s unions? What were the key forces in her childhood that caused her to become such a driven, charismatic leader?
The Iron Lady glosses over these and other key questions about the formation of Thatcher’s character and political philosophy. The result is a portrait of a woman whose intellectual rigor, devotion to ideas over emotion, and imperiousness are almost invisible. Instead we’re offered a Thatcher consumed by thoughts of her dead husband and unable to remember that her beloved son lives thousands of miles away in South Africa.
The film is further weakened by distracting production elements, especially weird camera angles, including an overabundance of overhead shots, and close ups of inconsequential actions such as a seamstress sewing a button on Thatcher’s evening gown. The end result is that with Streep’s talent for impersonation, The Iron Lady becomes little more than a study in personal style and rhetoric. Although that’s interesting to watch for a few minutes, it’s hardly enough to carry a full length feature film, let alone one about one of the most consequential and provocative figures of the 20th century.
If you go: “The Iron Lady,” is playing at a number of theaters throughout the Seattle area. Check local listings for film times.