Notice the way Meryl Streep smirks and hold her head high condescendingly amongst a bunch of old curmudgeons in the photo above – it’s 99% possible that she’s thinking “This is the look of an Oscar winner“. And perhaps deservedly so. Her portrayal of British ex-Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher, also known as Maggie the Milk-Snatcher, Mine-Blower and Falklands-Monger is so crippingly towering it renders everyone around her look like startups (including her Oscar co-nominees). She transcends beyond mere mimicry and impersonation, peeling layers of that blue-clad woman and, god forbid, revealing some humanity and stoicism beneath all that that big hair. In fact, she’s so mischievously good it makes everything else about The Iron Lady so bad. Don’t mistake this is a good film just because Streep is in it. We know Streep is a spectacular actor (if you want to see her doing some great acting, go watch Sophie’s Choice, Doubt or Adaptation). Her Margaret Thatcher will no doubt sweep the awards board, adding to her 5,000 Oscar nominations, cementing her status as The Greatest Actor Of Our Time™. One can almost feel the Academy voters lobbing her an Oscar trophy for spitting seethingly triumphant girl-power lines like “With all due respect ssuuhr, I have done battle, evvv-ry single day of my LIFE!” (delivered with a British stiff upper-lip so stiff it can whack an Oscar gong).
But putting Streep aside and her Method fireworks, we’re left with a conventional biopic screaming clichés at every seam and thick-as-dust storytelling. In the beginning it’s sadly charming – poor old rickety Maggie tottering about in her house, seeing ghostly visions of her late husband Denis (said ghost played by poor sod Jim Broadbent who gets to deliver the film’s most cloying lines) and it’s really about facing the ghosts of the past, redemption, survival, memory and loss blah blah blah. We get it. But when this narrative device recurs throughout the entire film like some badly structured greatest hits collection, it’s just too fucking tiresome! Perhaps Phyllida Lloyd (who directed Mamma Fucking Mia! *slams head on the table at this point*) intended to make Maggie the Musical without the music – all montage, flashbacks upon flashbacks ad infinitum and barely a hint of artful or subtle direction. We’ve been through this road far too many times before, and the same narrative structure is employed and stunningly pulled off in Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose (which is a far better picture about an old rickety lady glossing over her once compelling greatest hits). And for being the single most divisive politician in the 20th-century Western world civilisation, Thatcher is treated with such subjectivity that The Iron Lady becomes banally depoliticised. We know it’s difficult to be a woman those days (cue endless scenes of Maggie being in a roomful of men, walking with men, leading men to a room, arguing with men, anything you can imagine with men without the sexual bits), and we know her convictions are quite strong even when her policies are not equally agreeable (go ask the great British public who went through the tumultuous 80’s) – but this film barely gets skin-deep in Thatcher’s politics and the social context of her decisions. What we get is an old woman looking back to her glory days of feminism, bouffant hair, grandstanding speeches and not much else.
Meryl Streep is gold standard as Maggie the Milk-Snatcher, doing some spectacular thesping fireworks in a film that completely undermines a towering performance. Put her aside, and we’re left with a crushingly clichéd and banal biopic, leaden with artless direction and thick-as-dust storytelling. That extra star is for Streep in her most show-offy performance.