Essentially a one-woman stage play dressed as a biopic, The Iron Lady, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is an unfocused portrait of a figure whose importance it takes for granted. In these surroundings, Meryl Streep's impeccable turn as Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom's first and only woman prime minister, is an award-worthy performance in search of a whole movie.
Lloyd and Morgan divide The Iron Lady into the story of two women: the "grocer's daughter from Grantham," who refused to be ignored by the male-dominated political class, and the aging baroness tragically losing her grip on her former self. With the exception of brief contributions from Alexandra Roach as a young Margaret, Streep plays both Thatchers as the movie depicts her rise to power and subsequent time as prime minister by way of a series of flashbacks, supposedly brought on by her increasingly unhinged mind. Her dementia also triggers visions of her dead husband (played by Jim Broadbent), interactions she desperately fights off, with diminishing success.
The flashback structure has some merit as a strategy for portraying one of the most divisive political figures of the century. Like her ally and fellow conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who underwent a similarly painful fade in his twilight, Thatcher was a hero to the right and a figure of loathing to the left. Whether you see her as a Henry V or a Lady Macbeth, there is inescapable poignancy in watching someone who scaled such heights brought low by ordinary physical frailty. But in Morgan and Lloyd's telling, the narrative settles into a tiresome back-and-forth lockstep that avoids any serious assessment of Thatcher's character and legacy.
Instead, the filmmakers provide a whistle-stop tour of Thatcher's Wikipedia page, with special treatment given to Thatcher's then-widely condemned order to invade the Falkland Islands — a move The Iron Lady portrays as a vindicated boost to British nationalism on a par with the United States' response to Pearl Harbor. But the movie seems determined to chart a noncontroversial course through one of the most divisive political careers of the last century, so it serves us a clip reel of hastily presented touchstones interspersed with glum portrayals of the present day: her ascent to power, her tenure in office and her eventual ouster. Often, we're watching the trailer for a Margaret Thatcher movie that might have been.
The only thing that keeps the fractured narrative from dissipating completely is the gravity of Streep's performance. No matter how splintered Thatcher's memories, she is the star in them all, keeping Streep — thankfully — at the movie's center. Yet in this form, the drama might have been better presented and better received in a playhouse, with a marquee boasting, "Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher." There, the sets and the clamoring Brits could have revolved around Streep, as they do in the film, but the viewer wouldn't have expected anything more than a marvelous stand-alone impression.
In the end, The Iron Lady leaves Margaret Thatcher in the present — the film's version of it, anyway — as a hobbling widow, confined to her home and the chores she swore off as a young woman. The audience is left to wonder which would bother her more: the fact that washing a teacup is now an act of independence for the woman who changed British politics or our pity as the credits roll.