Three years after their international hit Mamma Mia!, director Phyllida Lloyd and actress Meryl Streep reteam for The Iron Lady, a stuffy biopic of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher that couldn't be more different from a frothy musical built around the hits of ABBA. But unfortunately, the audience for The Iron Lady will probably leave the theater in a sleepy state, rather than riding the euphoric, feel-good buzz that results from Streep singing "Dancing Queen."
The screenplay by Abi Morgan tries to breathe some life into the standard, all-inclusive biopic by skipping back and forth between the young woman's rise to power and scenes of the older Thatcher, suffering from dementia, conversing regularly with her deceased husband (Jim Broadbent) about her failures and successes. It's a gambit that allows highly accomplished actors Streep and Broadbent to play scenes together, and from a sheer acting standpoint they're flawless. Sadly, the movie itself is so underwhelming that their performances don't have the power they should.
The Iron Lady doesn't work because the film's fictionalized version of Thatcher is a dud. Her father instills in her a strong work ethic when she worked at the family's grocery store as a teenager, and nothing ever shakes her from her strict understanding of how the country should be run. As she faces the biggest challenges of her time in office -- the Falklands war, IRA bombings, an insurgency from within her own party to unseat her as prime minister -- she handles each problem exactly the same way, with steely resolve and a belief in the sheer rightness of British authority. She never wavers and she never questions herself -- which makes the character a bore.
Streep is reliably excellent in the lead role. Her accent is flawless (would we expect anything less?), and she can play a fortysomething, power-hungry political comer as believably as she can embody a senior citizen starting to lose her mind. The opening scene, in which the dotty Thatcher buys milk from a corner store, showcases Streep's naturalism, as well as the character's fall from power, as economically as anything that unravels over the rest of the movie.
The "at home" sequences are supposed to put the commanding Thatcher in perspective, but these scenes, however much they might humanize her -- undercutting her legendary status -- never fully connect to the Iron Lady we see in flashbacks. They feel like they're from a different movie, namely a poignant portrait of grief and early Alzheimer's. The two sections of the film never quite come together, and that makes the whole film more of a Wikipedia entry of this influential world leader than a thorough examination. You don't leave The Iron Lady with any greater understanding of Margaret Thatcher, but you do come away with more evidence of Meryl Streep's incomparable talent.