Crafting a compelling film out of Margaret Thatcher’s life should be a veritable slam dunk; it’s just a shame that screenwriter Abi Morgan, who has turned many heads recently with her work on the excellent Shame – imbues her script with too much silliness and, moreover, some particularly odd fantastical moments. These flourishes, better described as needless gambles, diminish the undeniable austerity of Meryl Streep’s superb performance, and director Phylidda Lloyd’s work therefore cannot be compared alongside robust political pics such as the Peter Morgan-penned Frost/Nixon and The Queen. Particularly disappointing it is because there are few public subjects as ripe for a barnstorming portrayal, which, in spite of the leaden, staunchly non-confrontational script, Streep somehow manages to scarcely pull off.
Indeed, if the Academy can consider an actor’s ability to transcend a mediocre script, then Meryl Streep is a shoo-in with her frighteningly authentic mimicry of the controversial Prime Minister. The very first image, of an elderly, weathered Thatcher shopping for milk is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, conjuring instantaneous images of the infamous “Milk Snatcher” debacle, yet quite miraculously creating a pitiable, even sympathetic figure, however temporarily; Streep’s expressive face conveys her exhausted loneliness with dizzying aplomb. Lloyd however has made a structural mess out of her story, choosing to fleet indiscriminately between the present Thatcher, scarcely coherent and achingly alone, and her younger, naturally more optimistic counterpart, living through World War 2, right up to her triumphant rise and cataclysmic downfall as the nation’s first female Prime Minister.
While a straight-faced B-line through Thatcher’s key political plays would be sufficient if generic, scribe Morgan instead goes too often the cutesy route, flavouring most scenes with at least one gag or quip which rarely justifies itself by accentuating the subject’s sense of wit or any inherent hilarity in a given situation. Instead, it largely stifles the drama which, while executed competently as it pertains to politics – if neutered and overly safe, or as some quarters would call it, “fair” – muddies itself fatally by having Thatcher spend at least a third of the film talking to manifestations of her dead husband Dennis, nevertheless played competently by Jim Broadbent. It’s a disinteresting farce with which to slather the material; after all, isn’t Thatcher’s life interesting enough without any Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week excesses? Streep manages to remain credible throughout, however, a testament to her integrity and her presence, shrugging off the script’s more pallid affectations and nailing a quite literally pitch-perfect rendition.
In fact, performances across the board are uniformly robust; Olivia Coleman, barely recognisable with a distracting – if hilariously accurate – prosthetic nose, is fun as Thatcher’s dippy daughter Carol, though some of the more intriguing supporting characters aren’t devoted nearly enough screen time given their impact in Thatcher’s life, chiefly Michael Heseltine (played by Richard E. Grant), and Ronald Reagan (whose physical appearance is mimicked so perfectly by Reginald Green you would expect them to make the most of it). In fact, outside of Streep’s integral performance, there aren’t any hugely meaty roles for the actors to sink their teeth into.
Though overly dreary and not nearly concerned enough with Thatcher’s political transgressions, The Iron Lady is at least pacy and rarely sticks around for too long. Frustratingly, the moments in which the film glimpses on her best-known political touchstones are probably the snappiest; Morgan writes herself into an awkward repetition of an elderly Thatcher spotting something on TV or in her home that reminds her of a past event, and then we cut to it with the utmost proceduralism. It’s lazy writing at the best of times, and when it comes down to it, too much of the film is Thatcher trawling around her home talking to herself – or what she approximates is her dead husband – while reminiscing about the good and bad of her career. Disappointingly, the political elements are largely derived of discourse and context; Thatcher’s well-thumbed view is presented without much of a slant, but the film, perhaps for the sake of commercial appeasement, has little to say about whether her decisions were right or wrong in the bigger picture. It’s a film that Tories will find themselves more satisfied with than Liberals, I imagine, but for everyone, it’s shockingly malnourished.
This strangely surreal, tediously conceited travelogue of Margaret Thatcher’s personal and professional highs and lows is notable only for Meryl Streep’s chameleonic performance.
The Iron Lady is out now in UK Cinemas and goes wide in the U.S. on January 13th.
This article was first posted on January 7, 2012