After The Queen and The King’s Speech raked in Oscar gold, why wouldn’t Meryl Streep want to play former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? It all but guarantees award consideration (as if being Meryl Streep wasn’t enough). The Iron Lady, a Thatcher biopic that focuses far more on style than substance, has the same British-prestige surfaces of those other films, but none of their depth of character.
The Queen, in contrast, was about how Princess Diana’s death marked the transition of the monarchy into the modern world, spearheaded by the working relationship between Elizabeth and Tony Blair. The Iron Lady, unfortunately, can’t find the right angle from which to approach the story of Margaret Thatcher. Without proper focus or direction, the movie settles for a go-go-go constant-montage of people, places and events. By the time the dust settles, nothing has soaked in and all is forgotten.
Bow-backed and pockmarked, aging and senile, Maggie Thatcher (Streep) stews in her London flat reminiscing about her political career. In a stroke of grade-school psychology, Maggie’s late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) hovers over her shoulder like some hallucinatory specter, haunting her with melancholic anamneses. Moments in the present—she accidentally signs her maiden name, Roberts, on her autobiography—bring forth flashbacks that comprise the plot of the film.
Her humble beginnings as a strong-willed grocer’s daughter (Thatcher’s played young by Alexandra Roach, an actress a bit too doe-eyed and passive to capture the titan’s austerity) give way to Parliamentary membership. By the time she’s elected Prime Minister, the country’s facing down tough economic times, worker’s protests, the dying embers of The Cold War, and a spike in IRA violence (she herself barely escaped a bombing at the Brighton Hotel).
Streep, breezing through another “Oscar worthy” role, does manage to imbue in Thatcher a combination of wisdom and stubbornness. While Thatcher stressed acting with intellect over emotion (“Nobody thinks anymore; they only feel”), she remains controversial for her handling of a 1981 hunger strike in which ten IRA prisoners were left to starve before she finally agreed to negotiate.
That’s why the Soviets gave her the titular appellation. She had a kind of immovability. Yet the makers of The Iron Lady (director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan) skim over their subject’s more fascinating complexities with Cliff’s Notes precision; they should be diving head first into the moral grey areas. The main focus of the film is how Maggie’s gender hindered her in a traditionally male institution. Even that theme is handled with lead-weight subtly: an overhead shot of one of Thatcher’s famous pastel hats swimming in a sea of drab brown fedoras is as sumptuous as it is overt.
The film’s crippling lack of revelations is covered up by superfluous technical flourishes: fancy transitions, out-of-sync dialogue sequences, and overused archival footage. They’re meant to give the movie some much-needed pulse, but it’s just desperate vanity, really. Thatcher’s life story is certainly one worth telling, but The Iron Lady’s shiny statue is a hollow shell.