Meryl Streep’s portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a doddering and demented widow (and in her flashback political prime) is simultaneously impressive, inspired and insulting. The performance could get the always watchable Streep her 17th Oscar nomination, despite artistic-license liberties the film takes with its subject. But the film’s very unflattering hypothesis about Thatcher’s current mental state makes one wonder why the movie wasn’t titled The Madness of Baroness Maggie.
Streep is convincingly befuddled as an elderly woman in her dotage, puttering and mumbling around her comfortable London home. But while the real Thatcher is frail and reclusive these days, the movie makes her out to be a delusional, hallucinating nutjob. The portrayal comes off like the cinematic equivalent of a mean-spirited mugging. Kicking a hated-by-millions conservative icon when she’s down is one thing, but there’s a point where putting the boot in becomes a bit distasteful.
The screenplay by Abi Morgan resorts to the tired device of showing Thatcher in frequent conversation with her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who is visible to her. This annoying imaginary friend alternates between being colorfully eccentric and irritatingly haranguing. Their daughter Carol (Peep Show‘s Olivia Colman) wants mom to get around to finally disposing of dead dad’s clothes, which becomes an unsubtle allegory for Margaret letting go of Denis himself.
In scenes dating from around World War II, Alexandra Roach portrays the then Margaret Roberts, a grocer’s daughter. The political novice isn’t taken seriously by male politicians, but overcomes initial failure to win a seat in Parliament by the mid-1950s. (Denis Thatcher’s prophetic proposal comes with the added enticement that “a married woman is easier to elect.”)
Streep takes over as Maggie for the greatest hits of Thatcher’s 1970s-80s career: union strikes, IRA bombings, the Falklands war. Her relationship with stateside kindred spirit Ronald Reagan is limited to a single waltz, which seems hardly sufficient to convey their simpatico mindsets. References to spending cuts in the middle of a recession, people losing their homes and the selloff of assets to bankers and industrialists during Thatcher’s reign have an everything-old-is-new-again resonance.
Streep’s interpretation of Thatcher as an underestimated but indomitable proto-feminist during that era never quite tips into parody, but also doesn’t delve beneath the surface of her convictions. Then again, expecting to see a character-defining moment that converted Thatcher into a heartless conservative ideologue presumes that only stupidity, trauma or mental illness could be responsible for turning anyone away from liberalism.
Director Phyllida Lloyd, who previously directed Streep in Mamma Mia!, may have been better off presenting the mishmash of Maggie’s most memorable moments as the deluded fantasies of an 80-something pensioner who merely thought she was Thatcher. That way, the movie’s already ironic title would have seemed even more sardonic.
[Rating: 2.5 stars]
The Iron Lady has a theatrical release today, December 30, 2011