By Christy Lemire / AP
The same problems that plagued “La Vie en Rose,” starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, exist in “The Iron Lady,” a biopic about Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep as the former British prime minister. While both films feature strong performances from strong actresses playing strong, real-life women, the scripts are weakened by going strictly by the numbers.
Sure, Streep reliably nails her impression of Thatcher — that swoop of big ’80s hair, the measured voice, the steely demeanor. Her impeccable ear for accents and detailed mimicry of mannerisms is well-documented at this point — who better to play this role? And there’s fire beneath the reserved exterior: The way she dresses down her deputy during a crowded cabinet meeting, for example, is just withering.
But the film from Phyllida Lloyd (who previously directed Streep in the giddy ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!”), based on a script by Abi Morgan (“Shame”), reduces this high-profile life to a greatest-hits collection of historic moments. It’s a trap into which so many biopics tend to fall in trying to encompass everything. Here’s Thatcher’s first election to public office; there’s her ascension to the prime minister’s post, the first (and, so far, only) time a woman achieved that rank. Here’s the Falkland Islands conflict, there’s the Berlin Wall coming down.
Through it all, her beloved husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), stood by her side, until — and after — his death. One of the more facile and repetitive narrative devices in “The Iron Lady” features the aged, fragile Thatcher seemingly talking to herself when in reality she’s speaking to her deceased husband, a symptom of the dementia that’s gnawing at her once-formidable brain. (Thatcher herself is now 86 years old.) This inevitably sets up a flashback to one of the aforementioned historical events. You just know that if Thatcher is by herself in her lonely, empty home, Denis will pop up to amuse and cajole her, if only in her imagination. It happens so often you can predict it, which erodes its emotional impact and the deep sense of loss it’s meant to convey.
“The Iron Lady” focuses more on Maggie the woman and only superficially explores her global political influence; the inclusion of archival footage makes the film feel especially cursory. As it traces her rise from grocer’s daughter and young wife (when she’s played by Alexandra Roach) to titanic, divisive figure, it pays a great deal of lip service to the importance of public service but leaves you feeling dissatisfied. You never truly get a chance to learn what motivated and drove her, especially given the gender gap she had to cross. And the idea that her family relationships suffered as a result of her political aspirations is something that’s hinted at in passing and glossed over, rather than explored.
And yet, there is Streep, in an array of prim blue suits and those ever-present pearls. But even the greatest actress of our time can only do so much when the figure she’s playing just isn’t on the page.