Reviewing Steve McQueen’s sex-addiction drama Shame, I remarked that that movie’s lead, Michael Fassbender, deserved the year’s award for outstanding performance in a mediocre movie. After seeing Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, I’m wondering if the category might not need to be divided by gender: Streep would take Best Actress in a Bad Movie in a walk. This hokey, scattered biopic, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed Streep in the ABBA jukebox musical Mamma Mia!), was scripted by Abi Morgan, who also, as it happens, co-wrote Shame.
In a strange way, Shame and The Iron Lady have a lot in common: Both feature a driven, single-minded protagonist who manages to impress us as complex and larger-than-life thanks to the sheer force of personality of the actor playing him or her. And both films seem to take place in a context so thin, it’s as if their bullheaded main characters—Shame’s self-loathing poon hound and The Iron Lady’s indestructible battle-ax—were acting against a painted backdrop.
At least in Shame’s case that insubstantial backdrop was elegantly rendered. The Iron Lady is, to put it kindly, a shambles. There are a lot of cinematic problems presented by the form of the biopic: How exact an impression of the famous subject do you want to coax from your lead actor? How do you structure the story temporally: chronologically or using flashbacks of some kind? How best to ease the audience past the transition between the actor who plays the subject as a young person and as an older one? Lloyd addresses those problems by sticking her fingers in her ears and humming loudly. Her film falls, with a consistency that starts to seem willful, into every biopic sandtrap. There are secondary characters who seem to exist only as exposition-delivery devices; historical montages assembled from TV news footage; and flashback reveries triggered by a character gazing at a framed photograph (an image that’s the visual equivalent of hearing harp arpeggios on the soundtrack).
If it weren’t for Streep, The Iron Lady would be unwatchable. But then, Streep could make a morning spent in line at the DMV feel like spellbinding drama. “Is there anything you’re crap at, Meryl?” Tracy Ullmann asked Streep from the podium earlier this year as she introduced the Kennedy Center Awards’ tribute to the actress. It’s starting to seem like there isn’t, up to and including elevating the tone of crappy biopics. But even Streep’s bottomless resources as an actor—her intuition, her humor, her vocal fluidity and imitative skill—can only do so much with the Margaret Thatcher this film gives us, a woman recognizable neither from history nor from life.
The Iron Lady frames its portrait of this grocer’s daughter from Grantham by showing us Thatcher as an old woman, long out of office (she stepped down in 1990 after 10½ years as prime minister) already exhibiting the early signs of Alzheimer’s (the real-life Thatcher, still living, is now in the later stages of the disease).* It’s not that showing a character’s decline into dementia on-screen is, in itself, degrading—Iris and Away From Her are two films that have risen impressively to the task. But there’s something cruelly diminishing about the way this movie returns insistently to the scene of a confused, disheveled Thatcher wandering her empty house in a pastel housecoat. Yes, it’s awful that senility can reduce even an imperious leader like Thatcher to a frail, dependent being, but there’s a lack of specificity to these scenes that threatens to reduce the historical Thatcher to a generic old lady. The film’s chief means of building empathy for its sometimes off-putting heroine is to cut away from her years as a player on the world stage back to her lonely waning days—a strategy that, by the third or fourth time it’s used, starts to feel both manipulative and lazy.