Everything you may have heard about Meryl Streep's performance in The Iron Lady is true. Yes, she's that good. As Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first (and only) female prime minister, conservative stalwart of the 1980s, supporter of global Reaganomics, and tireless foe of unions and progressives, Streep delivers more than an acute impersonation. (Her distillation of Thatcher's speech patterns, mannerisms, and overall appearance are freakishly effective. Streep even manages to look shorter.) But Streep also conveys the complexity of the woman beneath the familiar persona, softened with warmth and wit, yet steeled with intelligence and self-determination. As a role, it's not as much fun as playing Julia Child, but Streep's performance is just as absorbing.
The problem is how to make Thatcher a palatable heroine of a fictionalized film (as opposed to a documentary subject). Director Phyllida Lloyd and scriptwriter Abi Morgan attempt to solve this issue by keeping the focus on Thatcher's enduring relationship with her beloved husband, Denis, portrayed throughout most of the film by the irrepressible Jim Broadbent. This works wonderfully in the first third of the film, as elderly Margaret in retirement bustles around her flat, giving her handlers fits for the wry conversations she continues to have with Denis—even though, by now, he is long since dead.
Having established sympathy for Margaret as a lonely widow coping with loss as best she can, Lloyd begins introducing flashbacks to tell Thatcher's larger story. The serious-minded daughter of a grocer who gives up the usual girlish frivolities to earn a place at Oxford, young Margaret (winningly played by Alexandra Roach) meets bespectacled jokester, young Denis (a terrific Harry Lloyd), at a local conservative political club. Even at this level, Margaret's attempts to navigate the old boys club of political action are daunting; over a plate of aspic at a dinner party, Denis advises her to "start at the outside and work your way in."
The movie is most persuasive in positioning Margaret as a pioneer woman in a man's world. As she progresses into her prime (again played by Streep), as Members of Parliament and eventual candidate for prime minister, she struggles to be taken seriously while enduring elocution lessons, fashion advice from her staff, and a quest for a hairstyle that's more "important." This is the part of her story we can all relate to, although Lloyd glosses over the fact that by the time Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, there were already 19 other female MP’s.
But as the story expands, Lloyd opts for sort of a Julie Taymor-style pastiche of the socio-political climate in which Thatcher found herself. As newsreel footage montages tick off events—a failing economy, protest marches, IRA bombings—Lloyd throws in surreal, symbolic images of Margaret in a delirious waltz with Ronald Reagan, or flashbacks to her adored, charismatic Conservative father's stiff-upper-lip speechifying. When her cabinet splits over the Falkland Islands crisis, Lloyd photographs both her moderate advisors and the military hawks in looming, expressionistic, slightly off-kilter close-ups as they battle each other for the conquest of Margaret's heart and mind.
All this monkeying around with the storytelling process runs out of gas as Thatcher's policies become less sympathetic. Attempting to fall back on the central love story between Margaret and Denis to keep viewers engaged, Lloyd clutters up the late innings with way too much of the elderly Margaret puttering around her flat, trying to pluck up the resolve to get rid of her late husband's things and banish his ghostly presence from her life. Not only do Lloyd and Morgan fail to make this plot point dynamic (whether or not she's "mad" to keep seeing Denis about doesn't seem like much of a crisis in comparison to the relative madness of some of her political decisions), but the audience desperately wants Broadbent's Denis to stay in the picture.
Broadbent's delightfully goofy, prickly and affectionate tête-à-têtes with Streep are all we care about in the final third of the film. Even when the rest of the movie gets away from its makers, these two marvelous veteran actors are well worth watching.
THE IRON LADY
★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent. Written by Abi Morgan. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG-13. 105 minutes.
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