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.
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.