There is nothing to to ruin a film like a Famous Actor and a Famous Person mixed into a stew. As Phyllida Lloyd desperately wishes to prove, it seems, legitimately incompetent direction doesn’t even come close to causing that much hurt compared to the genuinely uninspired and violently sedate biopic genre from which this film was birthed. If nothing else, at least her casual inability to point a camera at people talking affords the film a somewhat tilted-axis, twitchy vibe that is miles more interesting than anything actress Meryl Streep or writer Abi Morgan accomplish at any point in the film. Lloyd single-handedly turns something that might have been a great bore into a more magnetic form of badness, and thus a more watchable film.
Certainly, the droll, fractured structure of the film is no help, beginning with an elderly Thatcher (Streep) in the midst of dementia coping with the death of her husband (manifested in the criminally misguided decision to force poor Jim Broadbent to play the dead husband talking to Streep throughout the film and act like he has any idea what is going on). From there, we flash back to various points in Thatcher’s life in a garden-variety greatest-hits showpiece that has nothing to say about Thatcher the person and less of an idea of how to say that nothing. That is, except for frantically bizarre sitcom-y shorthands for conveying her elder-age dementia that induce slight fits of accidental comedy, just about the only things keeping the film from its too-tasteful commitment to seeming studious and archly-morose in its depiction of politics and people. I’ve seen many middlebrow movies before, but The Iron Lady has bested me.
Through it all, Meryl Streep gallantly and gamely proves she no longer has any interest in playing a role with any modicum of challenge or flesh anymore, trotting out a perfect accent that swallows any sense of life and genuine passion out of the role. Like the film, she is too articulate and composed to ever feel much of anything, which gives the film the resemblance of the lamest costume party ever hosted by the Queen of England, where only well-to-do aristocratic bores with no idea of fun attended and never thought of dressing like anyone except people like themselves. I do not enjoy criticizing Streep; Hollywood abuses actresses at all stages of their life, and affords them especially little in their old age. Streep, and women like her, have long been stereotyped into draggy, drippy roles like this, so it really isn’t her fault in the end. It is Hollywood’s, but that doesn’t make the role any more palatable.
Thatcher wasn’t much of a moral figure or a skilled politician; like her bosom buddy Ronnie, she primarily traded in the glory years of Western history as a rhetorical shorthand for buying audience support. The worst thing about The Iron Lady, the film about Thatcher, is that it seems to have taken a lesson from her, traipsing out dead-in-the-water corpses of other better films (and many that are equally malaised and middlebrow). It is not a film with a new or invigorating idea in the whole cloth of its existence; it feels not alive and pulsing but cadaverous and embalmed. It isn’t a film; it is a waxworks show.