It goes without saying that Meryl Streep is always worth watching; in the case of The Iron Lady, her uncanny performance as Margaret Thatcher is the best, and possibly only, reason to see this pallid biography. Screenwriter Abi Morgan does provide a primer on Thatcher’s remarkable rise from grocer’s daughter to Member of Parliament, ultimately achieving the astonishing feat of becoming the first female leader of a Western nation.
But, by framing her story in the present day, and depicting a diminished Thatcher in the first stages of dementia, Morgan raises troubling questions. Is this to illustrate that no matter how powerful the individual, no one can escape the ravages of old age? And is that her way of offering satisfaction to the many people who despise Thatcher and everything she stood for? Or is it just the opposite, a means of humanizing the implacable former Prime Minister? Whatever the case, it seems invasive, if not downright cruel—although it does offer Streep the opportunity to play a doddering old woman, clinging to her dignity, with pinpoint precision.
Jim Broadbent is a perfect match as Thatcher’s husband. Olivia Colman is also quite good as her patient daughter. The other standout in the cast is Welsh actress Alexandra Roach as the younger Maggie Thatcher, who sacrifices almost everything to fulfill her ambitions, and becomes a victim of her own work ethic.
It’s unwise to use movies as a history lesson, and this one is no exception, although viewers old enough to recall the Thatcher-Reagan years will have some unhappy memories dredged up. Not to worry, though: no subject is explored in great depth.
What keeps The Iron Lady afloat is the mesmerizing work of its star. As we already know, Streep goes beyond mimicry to fully inhabit her characters, from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to Julia Child. Director Phyllida Lloyd (who also made Mamma Mia!) steers her well, but it’s a shame their film isn’t truly worthy of this brilliant performance.