About halfway through “The Iron Lady,” in what will surely be the scene most often excerpted to illustrate its star’s undeniable thesping chops, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher delivers a peevish rant about how she’s always been more interested in ideas than in feelings. The same cannot be said of this fuzzy-headed biopic, which glosses over the former British prime minister’s politics in favor of a glib, breakneck whirl around her career and marriage. The Weinstein Co. Stateside release is unlikely to win B.O. and acclaim on the level of “The King’s Speech,” but Streep’s technically impeccable if slightly too comical perf should command attention.
While Blighty would appear to be “The Iron Lady’s” most potentially remunerative territory, word of mouth could hurt it there; left-leaning auds in particular will chafe at what an easy ride the film gives its protagonist, still deeply reviled by many Brits. Pic may do proportionally better offshore (apart from Argentina, for obvious reasons), where Thatcher is remembered mostly for her standing as the Western world’s first femme head of state, her mother-knows-best charisma and her iconic, matronly hairstyle, but not much else.
Employing a classic look-back-in-befuddlement structure, the script by Abi Morgan (“Shame”) opens in the present with an aged, semi-senile Margaret Thatcher (Streep) having imaginary conversations with her late husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent, underscoring the pic’s resemblance to “Iris,” in which he also played the husband of a woman suffering from dementia). At the behest of her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman, hilarious and touching by turns), Margaret prepares to dispose finally of Denis’ old clothes, still hanging in the closet eight years after his death. As she does so, she remembers how she rose from humble origins as a Grantham grocer’s daughter (played in flashbacks by newcomer Alexandra Roach, a dead ringer for Streep’s Thatcher) to become prime minister for 11 consecutive years, from 1979-90.
Whereas recent fact-based films about British public figures such as “The Queen” and “The King’s Speech” have focused primarily on key historical moments in their subject’s lives, director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) here goes for an old-fashioned breadth-over-depth approach that would almost seem audaciously retro if it weren’t so clunky and on-the-nose in the execution. Awkwardly expository flashbacks depict Margaret deciding, in chronological order, to stand for Parliament, challenge Edward Heath (John Sessions) for leadership of the Conservative party, send troops to defend the Falkland Islands, and eventually resign in the face of waning popularity.
Morgan’s dialogue makes all kinds of unnatural contortions to allow Thatcher to call her cabinet members by their first names, so auds can work out that “Geoffrey” is meant to be onetime chancellor, then foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) and “Michael” is defense secretary Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) — both of whom register as little more than one-dimensional cameos with good wigs and latex prosthetics courtesy of hair and makeup designer Marese Langan.
The rest is montage, using thickly layered archival footage to cover Thatcher’s remaining career highlights, such as the miners’ strike of 1983, the mid-’80s financial-sector boom and the poll tax riots of 1990. Perhaps because the script attempts to cover such a massive amount of recent history, an antic sense of giddiness takes over, and it starts to become apparent that Lloyd and, to an extent, Streep are mostly playing it for laughs, or at best turning Thatcher’s story into that of another plucky British femme underdog who defies the status quo.
Much is made of how Thatcher broke through the glass ceilings of gender and class on a personal level; rather less is said about how her policies disadvantaged the poor. Pic does underscore how Thatcher preferred the company of men and had scant sympathy for other women, even her own daughter: Her scenes with Carol rep the film’s most persuasive emotional moments.
With a strong assist from personal hair and makeup designer J. Roy Helland, whose aging work is subtle yet expressive throughout, Streep turns in a compelling perf that just about merits its advance hype. Especially immaculate is her rendering of Thatcher’s voice, which evolved over the years from a high-pitched screech (seen here derided in the House of Commons) to the more commanding, whisky-roughened contralto of her later days. But the film’s mealymouthed stance toward its subject’s politics undercuts Streep’s efforts: There’s neither room for her to be a tragic heroine nor latitude to make her an entirely comical figure, which would alienate the film’s natural pro-Thatcher constituency.
Other tech credits are largely serviceable, although editing is often choppy and at times spatially incoherent; use of cantered angles is more distracting than stylish.