Meryl Streep has become so predictably astonishing in her versatility that her name is practically a verb - a way of describing a performer disappearing into a role. The opportunity to see America's answer to Shakespearean acting royalty play Margaret Thatcher, that quintessentially British figure, is the main reason for checking out The Iron Lady - and, as it turns out, it's really the only reason. As conceived by director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) and screenwriter Abi Morgan, it's a film that plays at tweaking biopic conventions while ultimately offering too little besides the pleasures of watching a master at work.
The film opens in 2009, with a retired Thatcher and husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) breakfasting in a London apartment. But we soon learn that Denis has been dead for several years, and that Thatcher is likely in the early stages of dementia. Her memory spins back to her youth in World War II-era London, influenced by her father's views on self-reliance. The narrative continues to shift back and forth in time, covering Thatcher's marriage, her initial election to Parliament and her controversial 11-year tenure as prime minister.
The setup offers the promise that The Iron Lady might ditch the relentlessly chronological "this happened, then this happened" structure that mires so many cinematic life stories. Indeed, the early sequences, in which the contemporary Margaret finds herself slipping back and forth in time, are by far the most compelling. Lloyd provides an almost impressionistic vibe to the scenes of the young Thatcher (Alexandra Roach) first coming to Parliament in 1959.
And then there's the slump-in-the-chair moment when it all turns resolutely conventional. Even as the timeline continues to shift back and forth, Lloyd and Morgan focus on the most obvious and least interesting elements of each era: Thatcher's ongoing ghost-chats with Denis, whose presence feels increasingly like a structural device, and the various crucial bullet-points of Thatcher's career.
It's disappointing, because Streep's performance is at its most compelling when she's conveying the ferocity of Thatcher's convictions. In an argument with her ministers over tax policy, she spits out the word "concessions" as though it were a vulgarity. Streep captures the essence of a woman who would argue "our policies may be unpopular, but they are the right policies." It's nothing so mundane as an attempt to "humanize" a much-reviled politician; it's simply a fully realized character.
But The Iron Lady waffles over what to do with that character, and spends too much time on seemingly obligatory montages of rioting laborers, soldiers in the Falklands and other events of the time. Streep's presence guarantees you won't doubt for a moment that you've seen the story of Margaret Thatcher; the rest of the film can't decide what that story is.