We have arrived at one of the more controversial films on Meryl’s resume, both how it depicts Margaret Thatcher in her later life and how Meryl finally won her third Academy Award, beating out the supposed favorite, Viola Davis. The Iron Lady, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is a strangely unaffecting movie that goes by far too slowly and features a weird hodgepodge of narratives that never mix together well. The greatest disappointment of the movie is that it could have been great, given that Meryl is sensational in it, playing Thatcher as ambitious in her early days, strong and willing to make touch decisions in her Prime Minister days, and losing the light in her later stage of dementia. Everything about Meryl’s performance is flawless and screams master class. It’s just a shame that little in the film measures up to her.
The blame has to go to Morgan’s screenplay and Lloyd’s direction, which never finds a compelling point of view into who Thatcher really was. Abi, who wrote the 2013 feature The Invisible Woman and won an Emmy for writing the mini-series The Hour, seemed to think watching scene after scene of the elderly Thatcher getting false glimpses of her husband and marveling at the skyrocketing prices of milk would be fascinating for the viewer, but they’re not. If the film had merely begun and ended with the wraparound story of Thatcher as old, there might have been a point to be made about the pursuit of power and its consequences, but the film keeps cutting back to her in this stage, time and time again, to the point where any point to be made becomes lost. Lloyd, who previously directed Meryl in the musical extravaganza Mamma Mia, which is about as far removed from The Iron Lady as you can get, casted the movie well—Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head is particularly good as Geoffrey Howe—and brings a polished look to the proceedings. Clearly, though, she didn’t have a handle on the themes of the movie either, because she allowed the odd shifts of narratives to play out the way they do.
The same way that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln effectively examines not Abraham Lincoln’s entire life, but a small, important nugget of it, The Iron Lady could have been a tense, absorbing look into a short period of time in Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister, maybe focusing on a specific issue she contended with that brought great controversy onto her. Instead, there’s too much: we get glimpses of Thatcher as a young woman starting out in her career (Alexander Roach, uncanny as a younger Meryl), and Thatcher as the Prime Minister, and Thatcher as the old lady who’s slowly going mad. The film also tries to make us care about the love story Thatcher had with Denis Thatcher (an inappropriately wily Jim Broadbent in the older years and a more restrained Harry Lloyd in the younger ones). But since so little of the movie focuses on the older Denis when he’s actually alive, the emotional resonance of this relationship gets lost in the process. There’s so much going on at times, with rarely a scene that’s allowed to play out long enough to get us invested, that at a certain point it feels like an editor could’ve taken all of the scenes in the movie, thrown them in a blender, and come out with something that more and less represents the film as it stands now.
All of these story and editing problems almost serve to try to weaken Meryl’s stellar performance, which represents probably her best dramatic work since The Bridges of Madison County. Fairly short at one hour and forty-five minutes—many famous screen biopics like Gandhi and Nixon have weighed in at over three hours—The Iron Lady should have given Meryl a lot more to work with, but she does her best with what she has to work with. She is intimidating, clever, and funny in her many scenes as Thatcher in her Prime Minister years, with true-to-life wardrobes, an impeccable accent, and subtle, masterful make-up and hair that won Oscars for Mark Coulier, and J. Roy Helland, the latter figure having worked with Meryl throughout her entire career. (When he picked up his Oscar, he said, “Thanks, Meryl, for keeping me employed for the last thirty-seven years. Your brilliance makes my work look good no matter what.”) Her make-up is even more convincing when she’s older, with cleverly hidden prosthetics and Meryl appearing believably like an old woman, and despite these scenes not working as well as they should, Meryl is brilliant at capturing the downfall of this once powerful figure.
Even though just catching a glimpse of Meryl as Thatcher prompted everyone to assume Meryl would be nominated for another Academy Award, her likelihood of actually winning seemed uncertain leading up to the big night in 2012. While she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, Viola Davis had been picking up steam in recent weeks, winning the important Best Female Actor in a Lead Role at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, for her terrific performance in The Help. The only African American actress to have won a leading role Oscar was Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, and it seemed possible that Davis would become the second. But in the end, the Academy decided that Meryl’s work in The Iron Lady, despite the film’s shortcomings, was worthy of the big award. It had been twenty-nine years since she’d won her last Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, after all, and she had lost a whopping twelve times since. She had gotten close with Doubt, and semi-close with Julie & Julia. It was time.
The biggest tragedy of her winning, of course, is that in the far-off future, people may turn to The Iron Lady before they look at much better dramas she appeared in, like A Cry in the Dark, The Bridges of Madison County, and Marvin’s Room, the latter of which she wasn’t even nominated for. People might think that because Meryl won for this specific performance, it might also be the better movie. While Meryl is amazing in The Iron Lady, it’s arguably one of her weakest movies overall, and it’s sad, given the great opportunity of having Meryl play the powerful and polarizing figure of Margaret Thatcher, that the filmmakers couldn’t have produced a more entertaining and involving film.