Meryl Streep can play just about anyone and be impressive. She probably could have replaced Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams in 2011’s biggest biopics and disappeared more completely into the roles of J. Edgar Hoover and Marilyn Monroe. So whatever the problems with The Iron Lady, and there are plenty, Streep’s performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher isn’t one of them. Streep puts on an impeccable accent and finds plenty of emotional depth in her portrayal, but the oddly structured film never goes beyond a surface look at Thatcher’s political career, instead focusing on a fictionalized story about the aged Thatcher puttering around her house and talking to a hallucination of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent).
What at first appears to be a framing device becomes the center of the movie, as Thatcher flashes back to snippets of her career, from her first election to Parliament in the 1950s through her 11-year stint as prime minister in the 1980s. Throughout, director Phyllida Lloyd (who worked with Streep on Mamma Mia!) and screenwriter Abi Morgan focus on Thatcher’s tenacity and ambition more than her specific political beliefs. They treat the instances of her great popularity and great unpopularity roughly equally, so that it’s hard to tell if the movie has any perspective at all on Thatcher’s draconian economic policies or her conducting of the Falklands War.
It’s fine to be concerned with personality over politics, but the movie’s take on Thatcher is pretty thin, never really examining the roots of her quest for power or unwillingness to compromise. The filmmaking is surprisingly impressionistic, often playing out as more dreamlike than factual, even when dealing with important historical events. Although that approach sometimes makes for striking juxtapositions, it also trivializes the major contributions (both positive and negative) that Thatcher made to Great Britain. Instead Lloyd returns again and again to the senile Thatcher wandering aimlessly from room to room, unable to distinguish between past and present. Streep infuses those moments with sadness and loss, but the life she’s lamenting is frustratingly indistinct.