The historical-figure-as-puppet-of-the-past trend that carried through W. (George W. Bush: mostly motivated by daddy issues) and J. Edgar (J. Edgar Hoover: mostly motivated by mommy issues) continues unabated with The Iron Lady, a disappointing look at Margaret Thatcher that never explores the reasoning behind her politics, beyond implying that of course a picked-on grocer’s daughter would be ambitious and unsentimental, with Puritan-stern ideas about paying the bills and running off perceived freeloaders. But where The Iron Lady’s vague, rushed skim across Thatcher’s career fails as history, it sometimes succeeds as cinema. Playing Thatcher from her early political successes up through modern-day scenes where the octogenarian dodders, alone and delusional, in a kind of protective custody, Meryl Streep brings out Thatcher’s dignity, but the screenplay is more compelling when it emphasizes her drama.
The Iron Lady launches in 2010, with an increasingly frail but still occasionally flinty Thatcher installed in an apartment where armed guards and minders whisper about her and shepherd her to official duties. In the film’s strongest but strangest conceit, she confines most of her attention to mild domestic conversations and arguments with her husband Denis (played in a chummy-uncle way by Jim Broadbent), though she’s at least somewhat aware that he died in 2003. Much of the film consists of their interactions, which lead her to flash back to her past political successes and failures, and her rise to the office of prime minister.
In fits and spurts, The Iron Lady does convey the hardships and price of power, particularly given Thatcher’s gender. Like any politician, the film suggests, she had compatriots hoping to use her unique qualities in their favor as long as public approval lasted, then use those same qualities to distance themselves from her when it faded. But as a woman operating at an unprecedentedly high level of British politics, she met more resistance and resentment than most, and had to manage a more careful balancing act. In particular, the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict catches her at a moment where she can’t afford to show weakness, but may not be able to live up to a show of strength. In that moment, Streep’s steely determination and the film’s rise-to-power drama recall the exaggerated fire of Elizabeth more than the realistic, stately calm of The Queen. But director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) conveys too many of Thatcher’s efforts, ups, and downs through upbeat musical montages and parades of interactions without weight. Only the present-day material—the most fictionalized, dramatic, and personal scenes—brings across real, raw emotion and motivations. Strangely, this Thatcher biopic might have been far more worthwhile if it wasn’t about Thatcher: The aged, dotty stranger hanging out with her dead husband is a more compelling subject.