Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) stands alongside husband Dennis
(Jim Broadbent) as she accepts her party's leadership in The Iron Lady.
The Iron Lady lacks focus, plain and simple. It strives to be this grand biopic that encompasses the whole of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's life. But for such a big, polarizing figure, it feels as if her messier, more complicated moments are glossed over in favor of spending time with a dementia-riddled widow who one can't help but feel sorry for. Ultimately, director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan just can't have it both ways. This film needs to be either a straight-up biopic or a story about aging and letting go that's told through the eyes of a major historical figure. So despite a terrific lead performance by Meryl Streep, the film's inability to pick a lane dooms it from the start.
Born a simple grocer's daughter, Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach), learned at an early age that work, not pity or luck, is what gets you ahead. She turned that drive into a scholarship from Oxford and a successful bid for election to Parliament. Once there, she's Margaret Thatcher (Streep), loving wife of Dennis (Jim Broadbent) and conservative crusader. By taking a very hard-line approach—harder, in fact, than any of her colleagues—she rose up the ranks very quickly, eventually landing the job of Prime Minister. As Great Britain's first woman to occupy that position, she faced a number of enormous challenges. Her leadership and economic policies led to widespread strikes among the nation's unionized workforce. And a dispute with Argentina over the seemingly inconsequential Falkland Islands meant all out war halfway across the world. Thatcher weathered the storm, however, thanks to her constant rock—Dennis. And years later, after he had passed on, an elderly and alone Thatcher had trouble letting go—seeing him wherever she goes.
In their own right, both stories going on here are compelling. I would have loved to watch a thoughtful examination on the complex politics of Britain in the 1980s. Unfortunately, we get a Cliff's Notes version. I appreciated the attempt to explore the waning years of a powerful and influential figure. Unfortunately, the film all but abandons that halfway through. It's just hard to comprehend what these people were thinking. If you only give yourselves 100 minutes to tell a story, you can't fit in 80-plus years of a fascinating person's life.
Streep, of course, is the reason to see The Iron Lady. Though she's often painted as a chameleon, she's been pigeonholed as of late in these Oscar-friendly character pieces. Of course, she doesn't disappoint, but there's something familiar about her work here that makes it feel a notch below, say, Doubt or Julie and Julia. Still, to realistically convey the many emotions of, really, two very complex women is a feat that shouldn't—and hasn't, at least as far as nominations go—be ignored.
Would if I could say the same thing about the rest of the film, but it's a plain old misfire—not in the horrific way that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was, but for a movie with aspirations as high as they are, it comes up way short.