It’s hard to find fault in Meryl Streep’s extraordinary performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but it’s a shame the film itself has little of interest to say about either the woman, or the period of British history she shaped. Streep nails the accent, and finds emotional depth in her portrayal of the polarizing leader, but the film never goes beyond a surface look at Thatcher’s controversial political career.
Buried under layers of make-up and prosthetics, Streep channels the aged Thatcher even as the film focuses on the fictionalized story of the former politician pottering about in her home, having long hallucinatory conversations with her dead husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent). Using the flashback as a narrative device, the movie offers up shallow, brief snapshots of Thatcher’s career – her invasion of the Falkland Islands, her getting elected to Parliament for the first time, and her consultants remolding her image as she runs for Prime Minister. But they’re all hollow glimpses. The film simply isn’t interested in exploring the reasoning behind her politics, her hunger for power, and her unwillingness to compromise. What’s more, the makers offer no real perspective on her growing unpopularity among the people.
The film works better as a sort of love story, in the snatches of affectionate banter and disagreements we witness between Thatcher and her husband in the earlier years. It’s the love story again that rears its head when you watch the Alzheimer’s-afflicted Thatcher struggling to let go of her husband even years after his passing.
The Iron Lady has three fine performances at its heart – Jim Broadbent plays Dennis Thatcher with a playful glint, as a sort of cuddly uncle, encouraging his wife when she’s low, occasionally roaring at her when he thinks she deserves it. Also impressive is Alexandra Roach as the younger Margaret, the “grocer’s daughter”, who portrays the character’s political awakening convincingly. But it’s Meryl Streep, playing the older versions of Lady Thatcher, who is absolutely riveting on the screen. She inhabits Thatcher completely, from the voice to the dresses to the steely resolve in her eyes. It’s the only reason to watch this mediocre film.
I’m going with two out of five for The Iron Lady. It’s a lazy film about one of the most influential leaders of our times. An opportunity has been wasted.