‘Iron Lady’ lets down Meryl Streep – and Margaret Thatcher

  • Wed Jan 11th, 2012 3:26pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Meryl Streep’s performance in “The Iron Lady” is so excellent, she turns the otherwise muddled movie into an Event. Aside from that, the film is notable only as an oddly neutral example of the biopic.

The title character is Margaret Thatcher, the conservative prime m0inister of the U.K. from 1979 to 1990. These days, Thatcher is in frail health and reportedly suffers from memory problems; in a decision that dominates the film, Thatcher’s life is seen as a series of memories, recalled by the octogenarian Thatcher sifting through hallucinations and forgetfulness.

Played as a young woman by Alexandra Roach, the future Mrs. Thatcher is seen triumphing over class prejudice (her father was a greengrocer) and the formidable glass ceiling of British politics.

For her career as prime minister, the film conjures up a few highlights, most of which portray a leader who never seemed to pause for doubt. Her pursuit of military action in the Falkland Islands War gives one section of the movie an uncharacteristic forward motion.

In general, there’s so little context for the political episodes that they exist only to demonstrate Thatcher’s toughness. A couple of bombs go off, attributed to the Irish Republican Army, but how any of that connects to Thatcher is left unsaid.

To be clear, the movie’s bent is not political, but psychological. Except for Streep’s performance, this is an unfortunate choice: little hints about Thatcher’s distance from the lives of her children, or her brusque treatment of political associates, add up to the simplest kind of conclusion about the toll of public life on domestic life.

It’s hard to know what the goofy conception of Thatcher’s husband is meant to convey, although Jim Broadbent does his best with the role. Other actors pop up and threaten to become interesting story lines, but then get whisked away in order to revisit Thatcher puttering around her home in the present day, carrying on conversations with her late husband.

Why is the movie refracted through Thatcher’s failing mental abilities, anyway? So much time is spent on her struggles to stay in the moment, the film doesn’t have much room for her political career.

What “The Iron Lady” does have, and what justifies a look, is Meryl Streep. The actress’s body language, her voice, the tiny flutters of confusion and alertness, are all beautifully observed and somehow very truthful, much more so than the rest of the movie.

Director Phyllida Lloyd, who unleashed Streep in a madcap performance in “Mamma Mia,” clearly knows how to create a space for the actress to do her craft. It would be nice if “The Iron Lady” had something going beyond that, but it remains a mixed-up setting with a jewel at its center.

“The Iron Lady” (2 stars)

Meryl Streep gives an awesome performance as Margaret Thatcher, although the rest of the movie is not up to her level. Curiously, the film unfolds as the muddled memories of the now-frail Thatcher (a great deal of time is spent on her forgetfulness and ill health), which makes for a choppy and distanced treatment.

Rated: PG-13, for subject matter.

Showing: Alderwood mall, Everett Stadium, Guild 45th, Meridian, Oak Tree, Woodinville.