Let’s get the most important thing out of the way: Meryl Streep is fantastic as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She deserved all the awards including her third Academy Award. Unfortunately, The Iron Lady fails to match Streep’s transcendent performance.
The structure of the film has a much-hobbled Thatcher, undone by old age and the onset of senility puttering about her house, continuously haunted by the ghost of her husband Denis (a fantastic Jim Broadbent), as well as her past. While rummaging through her belongings, the film cuts to various flashbacks that include her humble beginnings as a grocer’s daughter, her tenure as secretary of education, as well as her disillusionment with her party and her eventual ascension to the office of prime minister.
Director Phyllinda Loyd, who worked with Streep before on the monster hit Mamma Mia! errs greatly in having the film scoot back and forth, zipping through Thatcher’s life like a sum of her greatest hits. It’s a superficial look at British politics – so impacted by Thatcher’s influence. Instead, Lloyd’s film comes off as surprisingly mild and inconsequential – an unthinkable debit, given the tempestuous and controversial subject. A better choice would’ve been to single out an important moment in Thatcher’s tenure – say, the Falklands War or the Poll Tax Strike – the way Stephen Frears did when he highlighted the death of Princess Diana in 2006’s biopic on Elizabeth II, The Queen. Because Lloyd is trying to cram a lot of events in a relatively short time, we’re buzzed through a dizzying amount of stock footage and quick cuts.
Beside the fantastic performances by Streep and Broadbent, a few familiar faces pop up including Buffy the Vampire Slayer vet Anthony Steward Head as Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s cabinet minister throughout the bulk of her tenure as prime minister; Richard E. Grant portrays Michael Heseltine, the conservative MP who eventually causes Thatcher’s political fall; and as Thatcher’s daughter, Olivia Colman holds her own among the esteemed cast.
Despite the mediocrity of the film, there’s an interesting film in here, hidden beneath the layers of clever editing and fancy, allegorical ghostly sequences. Thatcher is a highly polarizing figure and Llyod would do well to analyze her impact on the international stage – she has passionate detractors and supporters. Instead she chooses to present Thatcher’s political and private life in a stagey manner – lots of passionate screaming and stuffy pronouncements – Streep in particular speaks in slogans and proverbs. And the result is a soft-focus feminist story of a woman intent on making her mark and serving her country – at some points, The Iron Lady resembles Evita without the schmaltzy music.
In the end, The Iron Lady is a film with lots of missed opportunities. Like it or detest it, Thatcher’s legacy deserves more than this.