Dir. Phyllida Lloyd
(2011, PG-13, 105 min)

The Iron Lady plays like a 105-minute trailer for a ten-hour miniseries about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. At times it seems to be told entirely in montages and exposition, moving briskly through the 20th century, covering a little bit of everything but not revealing much of anything. Dealing with Thatcher’s upbringing in World War II-era England, her rise to power, her marriage to Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent), her physical and mental decline, and so on, and so on, and so on, the film skips like a stone over the surface of her life, but in doing so achieves little more depth than a high school essay on British political history. It would have been better to narrow the story down to a particular period and invest it with details we couldn’t as easily learn from Wikipedia.

What is it about biopics that makes them so beholden to formula? As I watched, I noticed that this film follows an eerily similar narrative format to J. Edgar; both are framed by older versions of their subjects reminiscing about their lives, with only a slight difference of context – J. Edgar Hoover was dictating his memoir while Thatcher is in the throes of dementia. But I think that if Clint Eastwood‘s film had followed this one it would have been more warmly received, because Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) seems more out of her depth, awkwardly splicing stock footage with dramatizations and creating overwrought political scenes in which male characters deliver their dialogue to the camera – a similar first-person approach was used to highlight gender differences in The Silence of the Lambs, but here the effect is too on-the-nose, as if Lloyd is shouting “Sexism! Feminism!” in every frame.

Meryl Streep is very good as Thatcher, but in a movie starring Streep it’s usually a reasonable assumption that she’s good in it. Aided by convincing makeup, she disappears into the role in all time periods: from up-and-coming politician, to formidable world leader, to her frailty in the modern day. As she also proved as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, she’s a gifted chameleon, but she deserves a better screenplay, one with more to say about its subject, and a director with more to show us than how well Meryl Streep can play Margaret Thatcher. The film is built around her strong performance, but both the film and the performance would benefit if they were built around a stronger character.

 

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