One tactic for spicing up the linear flow in the potentially dull biopic genre involves moving back and forth in time, working toward some middle ground of historical resonance and emotional meaning. Such was the mixed-chronology game plan in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, and also in the Margaret Thatcher saga The Iron Lady, which also happens to share with the Hoover bio the quality of taking on the interior story of controversial public figures with mysterious personal lives.
From another angle, both films benefit greatly from the vulnerability and radiance of their lead actors, Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, and a necessarily commanding, ambitious, and flawed Thatcher in the form of Meryl Streep, living up to her seemingly unerring track record for giving performances of uncommon power. While news of Streep taking on a prominent British character carried a buzz of surprise, it is no surprise that she nails it with her usual flair and depth.
For this role, Streep’s challenge is to juggle two Margaret Thatchers: the elderly woman in the late phase of her life who is delusional about her dead husband (Jim Broadbent) and the Iron Lady of her life during political warfare. Her character, with a spotty memory, flitting back and forth between them. Iron Lady manages to fill in some gaps of understanding for American viewers not well-versed in the Thatcher phenomenon, apart from the major headlines and the punk-rock tirades against the Conservative prime minister. Her rise to power in 1979 was a triumph for the cause of a strong woman asserting herself in a realm of men, while her stern social measures and iron rule during the ’80s left a stigmatized aura around England’s troubled “Thatcher era.”
Unfortunately, as a whole, something just doesn’t wash in The Iron Lady, which slogs and flies, by turns, as we wend through the story. What does work wonders, in particular, is the Streep Factor, once again. When will this woman make a lemon, so we can assign her some human frailty?