Thankfully, the entirety of the film isn’t spent poking around these dreary rooms with the elderly Thatcher (Streep in effective old-age makeup that puts the latex masks of J. Edgar to shame). There are flashbacks to her years as a bright, ambitious Oxford grad, a member of Parliament, and eventually prime minister. But at least for the first half-hour, those flashbacks are disappointingly Streep-free. Alexandra Roach, the actor who plays Thatcher as a young wife and mother, is quite fine, especially in her big scene, where she tells her husband-to-be Denis Thatcher (played as a young man by Harry Lloyd) that she’ll marry him only on the condition that he promise to love her despite her towering political ambition. (“That’s why I want to marry you,” the stalwart Denis replies.) But until Streep takes over as the by-then-middle-aged Maggie—which, in a clever touch, coincides with the first time we see her on the bench of Parliament—the film feels stifled and domesticated. Is there any world leader we need to watch at length as they moon over their college sweetheart?
The middle section, in which a not-yet-elected Thatcher struggles with the scope of her own ambition, is the most complex and best-written part of the film. Advised by political consultants that she has what it takes to “go all the way” to 10 Downing Street, she issues a ladylike demurral that barely masks a fierce competitive edge. Meanwhile, Denis (now played by Jim Broadbent) begins to chafe at his wife’s monomaniacal focus on political life at the expense of time with her family. (The Thatchers had twins, a boy and a girl—their son Mark appears only as a voice on the phone, while the daughter, Carol, is played as an adult by Olivia Coleman.)
The movie’s feminism also comes into clearer focus in this middle section: Love her or hate her as a political figure, Lloyd seems to say to her audience that you have to admire this lady’s resilience and grit. But are Thatcher’s divisive, confrontational Tory politics completely inessential to the equation? For a movie so unafraid to confront its subject’s physical decline, The Iron Lady is oddly timorous about dealing directly with her career as a politician. Scenes involving Thatcher’s day-to-day life as prime minister—which, in proportion to the movie’s running time, are surprisingly few—feel rushed and vague to a near-comical degree: an aide bursts in, explains a piece of breaking news (the Falkland invasion, the trade unions’ crippling strikes), and we’re given one shot of Streep’s brow furrowed in thought before a cut to the next crisis. Even as a Yank relatively nonconversant in British politics, I found this treatment of Thatcher’s premiership cursory and shallow. Though there’s stock footage of the late ‘70s riots and a few mentions of Thatcher’s sinking popularity, we get very little sense of the fact that it was her policies of economic deregulation and union-busting that dismantled Britain’s social safety net.
I never thought I would say of a movie that I wished it had less Jim Broadbent, but as delightful as that actor’s bemused, owlish presence is, an ongoing conceit in which Denis Thatcher’s ghost pops up in various whimsical guises to counsel the increasingly senile Margaret wore out its welcome fast. If The Iron Lady has a climactic scene, it’s not Thatcher’s decision to go to war over the Falklands or the moment when Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) forces her out as leader of the Conservative Party, but the moment when she bags up the last of her dead husband’s clothes and sends his ghost packing. But the anguished ex-prime minister has second thoughts: “Wait a minute!” she calls at the last minute after Denis’ departing silhouette. “I’m not ready to be on my own.” By that time—despite the enduring charm of both Streep’s and Broadbent’s company—this viewer was more than ready.
Correction, Dec. 29 2011: This article originally stated the year of Thatcher's leaving office as 1979. That was the year she assumed office.
Correction, Dec. 30, 2011: This article originally misspelled the first name of Denis Thatcher.