Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”)
Written by: Abi Morgan (“Shame”)
Call it Oscar grubbing if you want, but it’s not Meryl Streep’s fault that she’s so damn talented. Well, technically, it kind of is.
Still, when it was announced Streep would play former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a film that would cover the British politician’s life and career, it was almost guaranteed she would be a shoe-in for a record 17th Academy Award nomination unless something disastrous happened along the way. As Streep performances go, you can’t do much better than what she does with “The Iron Lady.” As biopics go, however, the film feels like someone is giving a history lesson using a set of sketchy CliffsNotes. While it certainly has the opportunity to be an inspirational take on one woman’s groundbreaking contribution to a nation, it instead transforms Thatcher into a tragic character with limited emotional trajectory.
While Streep’s presence makes a deep impression on the acting front, Thatcher’s does not from a narrative aspect. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar” earlier this awards season, the mammoth-sized lead role overshadows what turns out to be a well-intended and compassionate — but ultimately misguided and uninspired — reflection on such an influential individual. Constructed through flashbacks, some of which come from the frail mind of Thatcher (who is introduced to audiences as a senile old lady advised not to leave her house alone anymore), it’s difficult to see why screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame”) makes these twilight years the base of the script. Thatcher constantly forgets she is no longer prime minister and hallucinates that her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is not only alive and well but just as charming as he was when she first met him after graduating from Oxford. Alexandra Roach plays the young, opinionated Thatcher to a tee.
As the story continues through Thatcher’s rise through Parliament from Education Secretary to Leader of the Opposition, director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) and Morgan are not able to grasp the larger-than-life events and concepts that mark Thatcher’s legacy. Reference to the Falklands War in 1982 is reduced to stock footage and a couple of scenes featuring Thatcher in a war room possibly playing Stratego.
Despite the flaws in the script, Streep, as in her performance as Julia Child in 2009’s “Julie & Julia,” immerses herself inside her character with attention paid to the faintest of details. It’s scary how deeply Streep melds into Thatcher. Unfortunately, she’s really the only major asset here.