Meryl Streep is an incredible actress and is superb at playing fictional characters, but she takes it to another level when portraying real people. She completely transformed her appearance when playing Julia Child in Julie & Julia, and she outdid herself once again as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. It’s a real shame that her talent was wasted on an otherwise disappointing film.
Margaret Thatcher (nee Roberts) was born into a relatively modest life. Her parents ran a grocery in a small town in which her father also served as mayor. She had to work hard for everything she got, and had the added difficulty of being a woman in a world in which the term “male-dominated” is a pretty significant understatement. And when she made it to the top of the British political system, she was faced with civil unrest, attacks on British territory, and the persistent threat of Soviet aggression. She was famous for sticking to her guns and refusing to compromise on important issues, and was willing to make tough decisions when the need arose. She held her nation together through tough times, and had a hand in the end of the Cold War.
You’d think that with such a resume, a biography would focus on her political accomplishments and struggles, and on the events that led her into that life. And yet The Iron Lady spends most of its time on a point in her life about two decades after stepping down as prime minister. Her husband Dennis (portrayed by Jim Broadbent) had been dead for about eight years, and since he died in 2003 then that would set the film in the year 2011. At this time, Thatcher is old and frail and often senile. She can still see and talk to her dead husband, tends to get confused when she’s around real people. What we do learn about the great accomplishments of her life comes in the form of flashbacks, often instigated by an only-in-her-mind exchange with Dennis.
I’m utterly shocked by the direction they chose to take the film. We only get momentary glimpses of the powerful, world-changing woman that she once was, interspersed among scenes showing her current state of failing mind and failing body. Meryl Streep was at the top of her game and her portrayal of Thatcher absolutely deserves the award victories and nominations she’s already received and those that are still to come. But I came away feeling cheated by their insistence on looking at the frailty and vulnerability of her current state rather than what she had once been. Someone who is only momentarily distracted might completely miss the fact that she helped bring about the fall of the Soviet Union, but it’s made quite clear that Dennis couldn’t make toast without burning it, and couldn’t eat it without slathering it with butter.
To put it bluntly, the film borders on being offensive and embarrassing. I’m not saying that it doesn’t accurately portray her current state, but to so completely minimize her accomplishments and underscore her weakness does a disservice to both the Mrs. Thatcher and to the audience.