Starring two time winner and multiple-Oscar nominee Meryl Streep as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “The Iron Lady” will be watched across broad ideological divides; Thatcher was (and is) an icon to the Right, while she was (and is) demonized and disparaged by the Left. The film’s also being watched along polarized axes in Hollywood, as well, where awards-season gurus hover to see if Thatcher will get Streep her 17th Oscar nomination or even her 3rd win, and more innocent consumers merely wonder if Streep and the script will provide a quality night out at the movies. And yet these polarized groups will surely all come together to recognize that “The Iron Lady” is the comedy of the year. It’s not meant to be.
Every moment in “The Iron Lady” is tone-deaf — Streep is trapped in a death-mask of make-up and arch imitation; the film is shackled into the twin manacles of a hasty, hackneyed structure coupled with a laughable framing device. Late in life, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanders through the memory palace of her every achievement, the kind of montage-and-intercut storytelling mocked so effectively in “Walk Hard.” But Lady Thatcher’s memory is fading her, and she’s seeing her late husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent) deride and support her out of the corner of her eye.
In other words, imagine if a political biography of Ronald Reagan involved the 40th President of the United States recounting his youth at the prodding of circumstance and a friendly space alien. Or a dog who talks. This is the first female Prime Minister of a nuclear power, a woman who fought terrorism, leader of a vanguard of free-trade and pro-business movements whose aftereffects and aftershocks have cast a long shadow — she may not deserve better, but she certainly deserves smarter. But at some point, screenwriter Abi Morgan (who also co-wrote the excellent understated “Shame,” with Steve McQueen, and let us now consider the scales balanced) imagined this story needed a little juice, and so gave us goofy ghostly visits interrupted by the occasional explosion or rousing defense of the British Pound and tax cuts from Streep, delievered with the bleak blue eyes of a basilisk.
Part of the film is a politicized version of the superhero origin story, with a young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) darting upstairs during an air-raid from shelter to cover her family shop’s butter-square with a crystal cover so as to protect it from German bombs. Those three bombs zoom in, ever-closer, on the bright-lit shock of Margaret’s face so as to demonstrate that yes, Thatcher knew what it was to fight for the rights of a small businessman against not only small-minded bureaucrats but also the fricking Nazis.
Dad is a mayor, a shopkeeper and believes in Margaret, whose dishwashing mother can’t touch Margaret’s just-opened letter of acceptance to Oxford: “Me hands’re still damp.” “The Iron Lady” is less operatic than it is soap operatic — it’s Nixon by way of Miss Havisham — marking time and managing the passage of days and years with old-age makeup and montage. Director Phyllida Lloyd (of “Mamma Mia,” which may explain the film’s resemblance to the world’s most depressing ABBA video) gives us the most mainstream possible take on Thatcher, turning the real woman who said “There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families” into a woman howling at her departing ghost-husband “I don’t want to be on my own!” Again, whether you lean Right or Left, really?
The cinematography is glum and washed-out in the present day (all the better to hide any spark of life, my dear) with the past in a golden glow — the kind of golden glow that makes anything look good. (“It used to be what you thought…now it’s what you feel,” bemoans Thatcher on a doctor’s visit, with no sense of irony.) Thatcher, a shopkeeper’s daughter, went to parliament, led her party, went on to lead a nation — and it’s all ground beneath the hooves of a film that races from the 1930s to the present breathlessly, and thoughtlessly, in pursuit of the next big story hook. Broadbent is lively — as lively as a hallucination or a flashback can be — and the supporting cast wastes such good sports as Roger Allam, Richard E. Grant, Olivia Colman and Anthony Head.
As for Streep, her dissection of Thatcher’s every turn and twitch is the motion-capture performance of the year, albeit one given by an actual human. There’s no heart here, just the hollow clockwork of a director grinding the gears of a script that’s trying to go too far with too little new fuel in its rusty standard-issue bio-pic tank. Making “The King’s Speech” look like “Secret Honor,” “The Iron Lady” is a shabby tin toy version of a lived and extraordinary life, less a window into the soul than a 60-foot wide postage stamp. [D]