The buzz about The Iron Lady is that Meryl Streep is fantastic and the film, just so-so. That’s correct. Sometimes a good film highlights a performance, and that performance is what you walk away remembering. Sophie’s Choice—still in my thinking the film that contains the greatest American female performance ever put to film—is such a film. It’s strong, goes places, and yet still provides a pedestal for a Meryl Street master class in acting.
The Iron Lady has a near-equal performance by our greatest living actress (sorry, Meryl, I know you don’t like to hear this), but the performance distinguishes itself partly because the rest of the film is relatively weak by comparison. The film itself has no center, so by default, the central performance becomes what the film is about.
What’s strong are the casting and performances. Of course there is Streep, whose performance I’ll go into later. It’s a cliché to say that Jim Broadbent (her husband in the later years) is dependable. He’s more than that here; he’s delightful. It seems he can do just about anything in films, and here he beings a lilt and joyous energy to an underwritten part as Margaret Thatcher’s husband Denis. You can see how important Denis must have been to Margaret, and the film hints at one of the many directions this film might have taken and didn’t (to its detriment). A film on their relationship alone could still be made, though it’s sad to say that Streep likely wouldn’t be Margaret in that film, too.
Casting the “younger versions” of older leads is often treacherous. Going for some kind of physical equivalence is mandatory, but that often results in a compromise in either acting ability and/or an ability to capture the essence of the older character’s personality. One of the strongest aspects of The Iron Lady is the casting and acting of young Margaret and Denis, played here by Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd. Roach is tough and sure, and her performance actually possesses more political conviction than Streep’s. Lloyd on his part has the same jaunty step and twinkle in his eye as Broadbent; it’s a lesser part, but he is anything but a weak link. Watching them together adds immeasurably to the scenes with the older acting legends.
The structure of the film is part of the problem. The framing device is Thatcher now, in and out of reality with the encroaching Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s a little Lifetime-ish, and reduces the film to a more generic, personal “woman’s story” instead of a presentation of one of most powerful women of the last century. The film seems interested in world-shaking events only to the extent that they are challenges or opportunities for Margaret. In one sense, the film has accomplished the near-impossible: it’s an apolitical film about one of the toughest politicians in recent history. The film pays lip service to the expression of conservative British views, but they just lay there like the swept-up ‘80s hair, false teeth and spot-on accent. They are just part of the picture, and we never really get to see what drives Margaret to believe what she does apart from learning that she got some views from her dad and his experiences as a grocer.
And this is the one part of the film that misses in terms of Streep’s performance. As fearful as I am that my laptop will self-destruct as I write something less than complimentary about an actress I consider an acting genius, there is something missing here. Streep is a hard-working, technically accurate actress, and no, I’m not going to write the old chestnut that she isn’t warm enough. Her performance is astounding in its precision; she sounds intelligent when necessary, old when necessary, loving and motherly when necessary. There are few actresses with the personal authority to play a Margaret Thatcher, and what works best beyond the technical triumph is the clout and weight that the actress brings to the character; not all the great actresses possess that kind of personal power.
What’s missing is passion in the gut. Thatcher had that. This film’s Thatcher doesn’t, at least in Streep’s interpretation. Loath as I am to pretend to know where an artistic giant may be coming from in his/her interpretation of a character, one has to wonder in this political year if the left-leaning Streep just couldn’t find the passion necessary to faithfully represent the deep political convictions of a right-leaning character. She finds the woman, the mother, the wife, and Streep rises to rhetorical heights in the scenes in Parliament. But while we see the determination, even the stubbornness of the character, we never catch the fire.
There was a context to Thatcher. By concentrating on the woman first and pushing the context to such a secondary position, the film actually compromises its central character. She was a woman of her time, and she wasn’t just the product of a strong-willed small businessman.
It’s been said by others, but I will repeat it here. The film is a missed opportunity—actually, several missed opportunities. The political animal that was Thatcher, the fascinating stories of Margaret and Denis (young and older), the study of a colossus, the glimpses into the interactions of great (but conservative) leaders who changed the world—these are stories that are waiting to be filmed. The life and political service of a Margaret Thatcher is worthy of several films and miniseries. But having our Great American Actress take the lead in this particular film, and having her do such a breathtaking job of it, means that it’s likely going to be a full generation before we see the film that Thatcher and her era deserve.