Even though I was alive for most of her political career, I don’t know very much about Margaret Thatcher — the Iron Lady who is the subject of Meryl Streep’s latest Oscar-worthy impersonation. The movie version of Thatcher’s story starts oddly with Streep looking convincingly like a very senior Thatcher (probably somewhere around her current 80 plus years of age). The possibly-fictional episodes that frame the story portray Thatcher as being prone to flashbacks, and having active conversations with her deceased husband, Denis. I’m not really sure why scenes of Thatcher’s daughter and assistant showing concerns over her sanity were such a big part of this movie. They seemed even more important than the flashbacks, which showed Thatcher’s life including her younger days as a grocer’s daughter inspired by her father to become a politician, her courtship with her future husband, and major episodes in her political rise and fall. The flashbacks were mostly cut together as montages of quick scenes and images mixed with actual news footage. While Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher was effective, natural and grounded, the montages felt disjointed and made the overall story unclear. I couldn’t really figure out if the movie was actually going to focus on a particular incident in Thatcher’s life, or simply jump from one point to the next. While most of the “slower” scenes were reserved for the more intimate, personal conversations and meetings, there was some time spent on Thatcher’s role as Prime Minister throughout the Falkland Islands conflict. Those scenes were effective and made Thatcher appear quite impressive. I wish there had been more scenes like those.
As always, Meryl Streep is capable of completely becoming the character that she portrays. Whether it’s Julia Child or an Australian housewife, her accent, delivery, expressions are all pitch-perfect and extremely convincing. Of course, taking on a formidable character such as Margaret Thatcher was probably something of a challenge, but Streep definitely made it seem effortless — even when she had to portray Thatcher from her early days in Parliament all the way to her twilight years. She made Thatcher appear strong, elegant and queenly in one scene, frail and confused in the next. It was almost completely Streep’s performance that carried the show. Jim Broadbent was suitably charming and understated as Mr. Thatcher. Other side roles were played by Anthony Head (of Buffy and Merlin fame), Richard E. Grant, and a cast of many relative unknowns.
Unfortunately, director Phyllida Lloyd’s choices really didn’t work for me. I would have liked to have seen more focus on Thatcher’s political career (and her personal experiences behind it) and less on her supposed senility. Why was she the Iron Lady? How did it feel to be both hated and loved by her own people? How did she become as strong as she did? The jumping around of the flashbacks (though they followed a roughly chronological order) were not very coherent and I kept waiting for the real story to kick in. Not having known much about Thatcher before going into the film, I learned a lot (hopefully the movie is relatively accurate) but I felt that the time spent with minor characters and incidents over so many of the major ones seemed oddly imbalanced. Where were all the important, newsworthy events in Thatcher’s life? Even if they had taken the time to focus more on a single episode (such as the Falkland Islands conflict), that would have made this movie a lot more interesting and satisfying. As it is, it seems like a very long trailer for a biographical mini-series or something. (3 out of 5)