Like prepping for a doctorate dissertation on historic genetics impersonation, another exhausting Meryl Streep research job with new facial prostheses, liver spots, dewlaps, wigs and lockjaw elocution lessons, makes her imitation of England’s longest-running prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, the only thing about The Iron Lady worth recommending. Critics are tossing around words like astonishing and incredible, and she stands a strong chance of winning another Oscar, but what’s so unusual about that? We’ve come to expect nothing less from the unimpeachable talents of a leading lady who only yesterday was doing such a spot-on (and, in my opinion, vastly superior) job of mimicking Julia Child. Otherwise, The Iron Lady is something of a bore. I found it dreary and pedestrian, her performance polished but predictable and almost two hours of Margaret Thatcher more than I could stand with my eyes open. There’s nothing even Ms. Streep’s craft and resourcefulness can do to make this cold, humorless woman of iron likeable, and the whole thing is too dry to sustain so much screen time.
From where I sit, The Iron Lady almost seems like an apology by director Phyllida Lloyd for making a fool of Majestic Meryl in their previous collaboration, the dismal Mamma Mia! The clunky screenplay by Abi Morgan (Shame) tells us nothing about Mrs. Thatcher we don’t already know, and doesn’t even allow the star to grow into the role in a natural trajectory. Instead it forces her to hit the ground running—or in this case, hobbling. It begins when she’s 86, retired, reclusive and a lonely, fumbling old crone with jowls and house slippers, stooped over, walking haltingly and suffering from Alzheimer’s as she complains about the price of milk. Nowhere to go but up, we abruptly cut to the young Margaret (an excellent Alexandra Roach), working in her father’s grocery sore during World War II, rushing upstairs from the bomb cellar to cover the butter. The film rushes from her postwar schooling to her becoming Britain’s first and only female prime minister, who fought against gender prejudice and defeated sexism to achieve power in a man’s world, illustrated by newsreel footage. Interestingly enough, she is not mourned by the British people, who hate the way she played the role of condescending matriarch, scolding her subjects while wreaking havoc on their cultural traditions and social institutions. They remember with bitterness the conservative Thatcher years of trade-union strikes, blackouts, riots and garbage piled in the streets. They curse the way she staged a reckless war in the Falklands to save her political career, sacrificing the lives of British and Argentine soldiers in what many denounce as a greedy display of self-pride masquerading as patriotism. She wrecked the manufacturing economy and deregulated banking, while the middle-class that elected her three times watched their savings destroyed. The film glosses over most of the facts, ignores the poll tax conflict that led to her political defeat and offers no opinions about the life she lived or the triumphs and mistakes she made. According to the historians and journalists I’ve read who have catalogued both her political and private lives, there’s a much more interesting story to be told than the one in this dodgy film. There is no evidence that Mrs. Thatcher had any parenting skills. Her daughter, Carol, is depicted as a numbskull who drops in for tea and nags her mother about doctor’s appointments, completely skirting the issue of why she disappeared from public life after the British press exposed her as a rampant racist. Except for a voice on the long-distance phone, there is almost no mention of Mrs. Thatcher’s son, Mark, who distanced himself from his mother and fled to South Africa, where he tried to overthrow the government and stage a coup. The result is an oddly superficial biopic that sentimentalizes and trivializes its subject instead of showing her as the heartless, often nasty piece of work she really was.
What it does show entirely too much of is her relationship with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), after his death. The conceit in Ms. Morgan’s script is the way her adored partner and helpmate continues to counsel his widow, make comments and offer advice from beyond the grave, like Dolly Levi’s dead husband in Hello, Dolly! For a time, she became a two-fisted, hands-on inspiration to women and a forceful adversary to men who opposed her views, but opinions changed as her callous attacks on—and refusal to listen to—her advisers in Parliament painted an unpleasant picture in the press. But the people backed her in 1979 and she did make a difference. They applauded her for declaring war on the IRA, then blamed her for the highest unemployment in England since 1934. In a deep recession, facing a declining economy much like the one we face today, the U.K. was polarized disastrously. Trying to keep the peace by sending more troops to Ireland, refusing to negotiate with “thugs and criminals,” making budget cuts in England while deploying a task force of 28,000 troops to the Falklands, she was viciously criticized, but vindicated herself by claiming to write personal condolences to the families of every casualty. Then she lost them again by raising taxes, demanding the same penalties from the poor that she got from the rich. As she bullied her own Conservative Party members and humiliated her cabinet ministers, questions arose about her mental stability, and she was eventually forced to retire, and furious about it. Is there any doubt that history writes a mixed review of her days in power at 10 Downing Street?
Let it be said that Ms. Streep is galvanizing, even as the film slogs through too much information and not nearly enough illumination. As Mrs. Thatcher, she’s arrogant, grandiose, indefatigable and impervious to human frailty, weathering all odds by clutching her trademark pearls and tilting her coiffed hairdo in the direction of providence as though it was a chunk of indestructible cement in the eye of a storm. She is always worth watching, even when The Iron Lady isn’t.
THE IRON LADY
Running Time 105 minutes
Written by Abi Morgan
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent and Richard E. Grant