As the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom and a key player in 1980s world politics, Margaret Thatcher deserves a tough-but-fair biopic shedding light on her strengths and weaknesses as a person and as a leader. Until such a movie arrives, we have “The Iron Lady,” a standard, surface-level biopic that’s orderly and clean and offers only a cursory examination of what made Maggie tick. Though it’s modestly engaging as a shiny biography, the film’s primary accomplishment is offering further evidence that Meryl Streep will deliver perfectly good performances even in movies that are unworthy of them. And we already knew that.
The “present” is sometime in the last several years, after Thatcher’s husband, Denis, has died and Margaret’s mind has begun to go. Even buried under the usual layers of old-age makeup, Streep conveys the former prime minister’s intelligence and spark that manifest themselves during moments of lucidity. When her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman), and other caretakers are not around, she sees and speaks to her dead husband, whom she misses terribly and cannot let go. He’s played by Jim Broadbent, dotty and darling as ever. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that a movie of Streep and Broadbent doing nothing but toddle around the house saying affectionate British things to each other would be magnificent.
The bulk of this movie, however, is told through that venerable tool of the biopic, the flashback. Wearing less makeup but equipped with appropriate dental costumery, Streep plays Thatcher during her rise to prominence in the 1970s, followed by the surprising run at the prime ministership that put her in office for all of the 1980s. Working from a by-the-numbers screenplay by Abi Morgan (“Shame”) and directed by Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia”), Streep’s version of Margaret is unyielding, uncompromising, and usually convinced of the rightness of her position, morally and politically. In her early years in Parliament, the lone female among dozens of harrumphing coots, she comes across as a powerhouse, a force to be reckoned with. She is smart, she has ideas, and she deserves to be taken seriously. In her later years, this evolves into browbeating staffers like a schoolmarm.
Thatcher’s determined resilience is the only thing that drives her, as far as the movie is concerned. Scenes from her younger days (in which she’s played by Alexandra Roach, with Harry Lloyd as Denis) show her as steadfast as ever. There’s a brief suggestion that her commitment to public service has caused her to neglect her family, but that line of thought doesn’t go anywhere. Every now and then her anti-union, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps conservative rhetoric makes you think there might be insightful parallels to be drawn between this and the current political climate, but the movie isn’t interested in them. Like that other recent biopic about a controversial conservative government figure, “J. Edgar,” “The Iron Lady” doesn’t want to take a firm position on anything.
What it wants to do instead is to be a nice, inoffensive political biography that could be shown to high school students on days when the teacher doesn’t have a lesson plan. On those terms, it’s not bad. Streep and Broadbent are entirely watchable, and Thatcher’s story, even in its vague and watered-down state, is inherently interesting. Thatcher’s detractors will be furious that the film isn’t more of a hit piece, while her admirers will probably find it shallow. So who’s it for? People who don’t already have an opinion on Margaret Thatcher — my fellow Americans, most likely.
B- (1 hr., 45 min.; )