Some movies arrive pre-stamped with a consensus opinion. With The Iron Lady, the consensus so far is this: Meryl Streep excels as Margaret Thatcher. And the movie itself does not work.
Well, you know, she is good. After all the lousy, technically slovenly work this hack has given us, it’s about time. But I find the film itself more intriguing and, odd as it sounds, given its subject, more delicate than its advance notice. Yes, it’s a strangely de-politicized portrait of Britain’s first female prime minister. But what’s there is actually enough.
The Iron Lady goes the way of Oliver Stone’s modest but disarming George W. Bush little-boy-lost reverie, W. That film gave us a lucky, petulant man in over his head. In a similar, structurally tricky and fanciful vein, The Iron Lady captures an aspect or two—assuredly not all—of Thatcher, though even without that terrifying, metallurgically improbable helmet of hair, the grocer’s daughter cuts a more formidable figure than W. ever did.
Streep’s Thatcher is seen first as an octogenarian struggling with a failing memory after a series of strokes, slipping in and out of scenes from the past and her controversial glory years, when Thatcher ruled Britain (1979-1990), played havoc with the trade unions and gave Ronald Reagan a comrade in ideological arms. At the start of The Iron Lady, screenwriter Abi Morgan imagines Thatcher sneaking out from under her caregivers and going down to the corner store to buy milk for her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). Denis has been dead for years, but Thatcher and the film treat this ghost, this memory, as a living, gabby presence.
Thatcher is taken aback at the price of milk these days, and as at least one English critic (Philip French in The Observer) has noted, that detail echoes Thatcher canceling school-milk programs as education secretary in the early 1970s. Such flourishes flew straight past me while watching The Iron Lady, and that whizzing sound will be louder for some than others throughout. The movie does not purport to tell a linear, inclusive docudramatic account of Thatcher’s life and times. It’s prismatic. As Thatcher’s daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) helps sort through the late Denis’ belongings, we’re whisked back, in Thatcher’s head, to her teenage years as the daughter of a grocer and alderman. Thatcher’s zigzagging, stop-and-start progress in local and then national politics gets a once-over; the younger Thatcher is played by Alexandra Roach.
Streep dominates, though, and the reason The Iron Lady works has everything to do with a triumph of creative, exacting portraiture, physical as well as vocal, and to a fledgling film director’s increasing confidence. This is stage veteran Phyllida Lloyd’s second feature; her first–the popular Mamma Mia!– showcased Streep in one of her rare, pushy performances. That whole movie was pushy; this one’s a marked visual improvement. It treats the political pageantry as slightly tetched and hyperbolic, filtered through an old person’s memory of younger days.
At its best, it finds the little moments just before the big ones, revealed as Streep’s Thatcher rattles around her central London apartment, grasping at mental straws, snapping back into focus. It’s a bit soft, but Morgan and Lloyd and Streep get at something of value on aging and loss and what an uncompromising brand of leadership, especially when you do things like shut down school-milk programs, might do to a fiercely protective psyche.
Honestly, you can’t win with political biopics; half your audience goes in mistrusting the effort in advance. The Sun, Alexander Sokurov’s remarkable film about the final days in the reign of Emperor Hirohito, was derided as hollow apologia by some, praised as poetic and shrewdly ambiguous by others (including me). It struggled for an audience. In its ambition and idiosyncrasy, The Iron Lady is hardly in Sokurov’s league. Thatcher herself might characterize Lloyd’s sophomore feature as slight. But it’s an affecting piece. Sometimes a narrow slice of an epochal life suffices.
The Iron Lady (PG-13) ★★★☆☆