Meryl Streep goes for yet another Oscar nomination with her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, one of those essence-of-the-person-type biopics.
Which is nice, and all, but really, is it so bad to make a biography of an important historical figure about the stuff that they did, not just their inner life?
Thatcher (Streep) in decline is the Thatcher we see most in this movie. She is aware of the world around her but also she sees and speaks to her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), at this point dead a few years, and she occasionally forgets where in time she is. She does not want to let him go (she still has closets full of his clothes) but she also fears that his presence might mean that she’s slipping into senility.
Woven through this “present day” story are flashbacks of Thatcher’s life and political career. A young Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach), a grocer’s daughter, survives the bombings of World War II and an adolescence focused on hard work and getting into Oxford. She absorbs her father’s Conservative views and makes them her own (free market, yay; trade unions, nay) as she enters the political fray while still a single young woman. She loses her first election but a young Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd) suggests she try running again, this time as a married lady — a proposal that marks the beginning of what we’re shown as a life-long romance, though not always a smooth one. Margaret remains ambitious, running for office again and heading to Parliament with her two young children racing after her car and pleading with her to stay home.
Of Thatcher’s politics, policies and struggle to become prime minister, we see a collection of snap shots of public moments — consultants advising her on her speaking style, Parliament floor arguments between Thatcher and Labour party members, scenes from an IRA bombing or a miners’ strike — and private consequences, such as husband Denis’ feelings of abandonment. We get a sense of a woman very much in love with her husband, very fond of her children and yet ambitious to a degree that prevented her from giving up her dreams even for these people she loved. Streep’s is an engrossing performance of someone looking back on her life without regret, per se, but with an understanding of the things she gave up.
It does not, however, get to the political life and times of Thatcher. This movie reminds me a bit of J. Edgar, another recent biopic that shied away from telling the story of a well-known figure and his role in histroy. Both movies seem to assume we already know all we need to about their histories and instead give us a riff on the personality. Where The Iron Lady has an advantage over J. Edgar is that this movie at least gives us an inner life of the woman — however accurate or not it may be — whereas that movie offered no clear picture of either the private or public Hoover.
And, of course, this movie has Streep. She is quite enjoyable to watch in this way, inhabiting a person and trying to find the humanity beneath an icon (as she did with Julia Child). Even when I wanted more of Thatcher the politician (I’ll bet there’s a great Charlie Wilson’s War-esque Aaron Sorkin movie out there in the story of Thatcher’s policies during the 1970s and 1980s), I was tolerably entertained with this picture of Thatcher the woman. C+
Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd with a screenplay by Abi Morgan, The Iron Lady is an hour and 45 minutes long and distributed by The Weinstein Company.