Since conception, The Iron Lady has been dogged by hysterical right-wing killjoys, who’ve assumed that a splashy biopic on Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep—an outspoken lefty who’s accosted the former British PM with mean words in interviews—would be your classic hit piece. What few could have predicted is the severity to which they were wrong. The Iron Lady opens with Thatcher at her most sympathetic. It’s present day (or thereabouts), and an elderly, doddering MT hallucinates her goofy, late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) while confusing present with past. Poor Margaret Thatcher.
Pathos thus established, the script—by playwright Abi Morgan, lately Steve McQueen’s co-conspirator on Shame—rushes through her past. Old Thatcher puts on a “flashback face” and away we go. Her life is depicted as less a political saga than a women’s drama, with our (anti-)hero (played in youth by Alexandra Roach) ostracized not for her far-right beliefs than for her lack of male naughty bits. In Morgan’s version of Thatcher’s (presumed) version of events, the men she encountered were poor, weak cowards who lacked conviction. Throughout, the infamous episodes of MT’s career are either elided completely (e.g., her support of Augusto Pinochet) or simplified into banality. Her war on the working class merits a montage or two of angry masses; the Falklands skirmish is vindicated because Thatcher personally wrote sorry letters to the deceased’s families.
Morgan’s script teems with tin-eared, on-the-nose dialogue, where historical figures stiffly declaim exposition or pop psych analysis—a sorry situation which neither Streep nor her impressive roster of British supporting talent can jazz up. (Same goes for director Phyllida Lloyd, whose previous Meryl outing, Mamma Mia!, tackled the slightly less contested subject of ABBA.) A plodding, by-the-numbers biopic would almost be preferable, as it would mean at least not wasting Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe or Richard E. Grant’s Michael Heseltine. And it would spare Broadbent from the unusual position of being actively annoying. Granted, none of those are a mightier sin than erecting an apologia for one of modern day’s great hissable villains—although one can always make the case that a dim-minded film in which Thatcher’s been reduced to a pathetic, demented old drunk who can’t even prod DVDs from their cases is its own kind of revenge, intended or not.