Spoiler Level: Low
Can a movie be offensively inoffensive? How about controversially non-controversial? Is it acceptable to be neutral about a polarizing figure, or are films about real people and true events obligated to take a stand one way or another?
These are interesting questions: unfortunately, they are far more interesting than anything in The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd’s ridiculously toothless biopic about Margaret Thatcher. Written by Abi Morgan (who co-wrote the very different but similarly shallow Shame), The Iron Lady makes an excellent companion piece to Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, in that it takes one of the most interesting (and, for my money, repellent) figures of the 20th century and utterly fails to do justice to either their crimes or their accomplishments. Meryl Streep’s uncanny impersonation is a thing to behold, but if she had delivered it in a six-minute skit on Saturday Night Live it might have served a more commentative and courageous purpose.
For The Iron Lady never crawls beneath the surface of its subject. The closest it comes is in the imagined sequences of the lady in decline: much like J. Edgar was framed with Hoover dictating his autobiography to a series of underlings, The Iron Lady imagines the aging former prime minister losing her faculties and having hallucinatory conversations with her late husband Denis (the always reliable Jim Broadbent). Over a period of a few days, the mentally-deteriorating Maggie sorts her late husband’s possessions, and these sequences do achieve a certain emotional resonance: Streep and Broadbent are excellent as always, and there is something manipulative-but-touching about the lioness in winter. If the The Iron Lady had stuck to this time period, and just made the point that even monsters get old, it might have been an interesting film.
I suspect that the modern-day scenes were the ones everyone involved really cared about, because they seem to be the only portions with any imagination or heart: the rest of the film plays out in a series of by-the-book flashbacks that have all the depth and insight of a visual Wikipedia page. We see most of the major events of Thatcher’s life, and of her political career, but it’s all presented in such a drive-by, superficial way that neither the personal nor the political ever really comes alive. We follow her unprecedented rise to power, but are not shown how she achieved it; we hear her give speeches, but we see no genuine discussion of her policies; we are given footage of IRA bombings, riots, and the Falklands War, but without any real understanding of these events or analysis of their impact; we see Margaret Thatcher, but we never learn anything about her we didn’t already know.
The Iron Lady is a film that’s unlikely to change anyone’s opinion of Thatcher, as it has no opinions of its own: as such, it is unlikely to either offend or please a single member of its audience. Liberals (like me) are likely to be disgusted with its soft, non-controversial approach to one of their most hated political monsters; conservatives are likely to resent the trivialization of one of their most beloved icons; feminists are likely to be unsatisfied with how the unprecedented smashing of one of history’s greatest glass ceilings is reduced to a few vocal lessons and a change of wardrobe. Streep’s powers of mimicry are impressive, and—as always—she does deliver a real performance beneath the impersonation. Unfortunately, she can’t go much deeper than the shallow screenplay or the visionless director are willing to go, and so The Iron Lady skims unimaginatively over the factual surface of history.
Art that has no opinion, no point of view, no convictions, and no courage is not art at all: if you can’t be bothered to say a single provocative thing—positive or negative—about one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century, then why make a movie about her in the first place? It’s one thing to play fair to both sides of an argument, but The Iron Lady doesn’t provide enough substance to have any argument at all.
I have strong opinions about Thatcher, but The Iron Lady offended me most as a movie fan: there is simply no reason for it to exist, and no reason for me to have spent $11 and two hours of my life to have seen it.