Film Review: “The Iron Lady”

by Jason LeRoy on January 13, 2012

Meryl Streep in THE IRON LADY

starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Olivia Colman, Harry Lloyd, Richard E. Grant, Anthony Head

written by: Abi Morgan

directed by: Phyllida Lloyd

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity

Despite being a biopic about one of the most polarizing political figures of the 20th century, The Iron Lady is ultimately far more focused on serving as a worthy star vehicle for Meryl Streep than telling a political story. As written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, it is an elegiac, sentimental, somewhat eccentric portrait of an elderly widow living in forced seclusion after the parade has passed, left alone with her photos and books and records, her mind gradually disintegrating, reflecting on her life and hoping the decisions she made will seem as sound now as they did then. That this widow happens to be Margaret Thatcher ultimately seems coincidental to the personal concerns of the story.

The film is told in flashback from roughly present day (the real Thatcher is still alive but in poor health), with the elderly Thatcher living in the home she shared for many years with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, great as always), who died in 2003, and her two children, one of whom has become somewhat estranged from her and lives in South Africa; the other, daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), worriedly dotes on her mother while observing her descent into memory loss and hallucinations. Specifically, she sees and speaks with Denis quite frequently, although she knows he has died.

Just that detail — that we are meant to take a film seriously in which Margaret Thatcher openly converses with the ghost of her dead husband, whom we see on screen — should tell you quite a bit about the film’s taste level and seriousness (or lack thereof). This is a highly theatrical and affected production, with lots of stylistic devices and flourishes, and the finished product is considerably less sophisticated than one might expect. Even the flashbacks, which make up a bit more than half of the film, have a heightened and somewhat exaggerated quality to them, which we assume is because they’re being filtered through Thatcher’s aggrandized yet fading memory.

And so, through flashbacks that are triggered in all the usual biopic ways, we learn Thatcher’s story: growing up as the ferociously determined daughter of a working-class grocer who instilled in her an iron-clad work ethic and the belief that anyone can achieve anything if they’re willing to work hard enough for it. She soon becomes dedicated to public service (Thatcher is played as a young woman by the remarkable Alexandra Roach), and we watch her unprecedented and trail-blazing rise to power: from Member of Parliament to Education Secretary to Leader of the Conservative Party, and then her historic 11-year term as Britain’s first female Prime Minister (spoiler alert!).

Streep’s performance makes it clear that Thatcher was deeply and genuinely enthusiastic about public service; her unswerving faith in her values and principles is somewhat inspiring, regardless of one’s own views of them. The sheer love she feels for her vocation often manifests in facial expressions that suggest an almost childlike innocence, as if she were entirely true and pure in her motivations; if Streep’s Thatcher can be faulted as a character, it’s for her tendency to bully and be obstinate. There is also the rote matter of allowing her career to interfere with her family life; in one scene, as Margaret ardently defends her sense of professional duty to Denis, he firmly asserts that ambition, not duty, is the actual substance of her striving.

But, as previously mentioned, The Iron Lady exists first and foremost as a vehicle for Meryl Streep. As such, it succeeds. Because duh, she fucking nails it. This is a great performance, one that positions Streep closest to winning her third Oscar since…well, her second Oscar, which she won 30 years ago. I kinda hope she wins, just so this “When will Meryl win #3?” conversation can be put to rest. Despite being a two-time Oscar winner, she’s somehow become the Susan Lucci of the Academy Awards. But this performance is bigger than just Oscar-bait. After nearly 70 films and TV roles, Streep still manages to create entirely distinct, richly textured, fully dimensional characters with each turn. Streep as Margaret Thatcher is Streep as we have never seen her, and she is thrilling to watch.

So, while The Iron Lady suffers from questionable directorial choices and an inelegant script rife with obvious dialogue and on-the-nose symbolism, it was never going to be more than a shell for Meryl Streep to gloriously inhabit, and then shed.

The Iron Lady opens in San Francisco today.

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