The latest Meryl Streep showpiece of biographical impersonation is not a Marvel Comics property, mercifully, but instead a portrait of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who took that office, as the first woman ever to do so, in 1979.
It’s also almost exactly the movie you’d expect from the writer of “Shame” (Abi Morgan) and the director of “Mamma Mia!” (Phyllida Lloyd), who’ve apparently agreed that the best way to describe a political career cinematically is to split the difference between an oblique expression of sordid compulsion and an extra-peppy musical. Even if you hadn’t seen those other movies and had only their titles to go by, you might guess the general trajectory of “The Iron Lady.”
More often she seems to be made of tinfoil. Un-hugged by mum upon getting into Oxford, young “grocer’s daughter” Maggie (Alexandra Roach) borrows dad’s self-determination to hoist herself up into the middle class. As her temperament cools into reasoned rigidity, she resolves to transcend mere housewifery, and in Parliament her court shoes shine among all the sooty brogues. Decades later she’s been Streeped to the core, left mostly alone with a half-gone mind, adrift from a living daughter (Olivia Colman) and still attached to a dead husband (Jim Broadbent). This makes for much finely acted, empathetic puttering.
The in-between is rather a blur: Shrewdly framed as a series of demented reminiscences, with history reduced to a literal cacophony of undramatic bullet points, “The Iron Lady” should satisfy a certain conservative mindset. Its overall timidity, though, seems nullifying. Notwithstanding the occasional London street-corner trash heap or missile lobbed at Argentina, there’s scarcely a hint as to why Elvis Costello should ever have sung about dancing on the woman’s grave. What’s more, neither confirming nor denying the late Christopher Hitchens’ report that she once spanked him and called him a naughty boy, the film seems to have missed more than a few opportunities.
Sure, her general manner is convincingly portrayed. Even Streep’s sublingual groans are humane and authentic. But these things get so obvious after a while. And with all these unsurprisingly good performances piling up in movies that wouldn’t be much without them, it’s hard not to yearn for something even slightly more radical. Like: What if Michelle Williams played Thatcher and Streep had a go at Marilyn Monroe?
Then again, for the citizens of England, “The Iron Lady” could be plenty provocative just as it is. Should we brace for them to retaliate with Colin Firth in some homely effigy of Ronald Reagan?