A few years ago, The Onion wrote an incredible article about Meryl Streep called “Name One Masterpiece Of Cinema That I’ve Starred In.” The commentary, written in Streep’s voice, savagely ridiculed — and astutely observed — the fact that Streep, maybe our greatest living actress, does not have the greatest filmmography. She’s appeared in a couple memorable movies — “The Deer Hunter,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer” — but not many. “Go ahead,” “Streep” writes, “try and name a classic movie I’ve starred in. Not a classic character I’ve portrayed, mind you, but an overall amazing piece of cinema. You can’t. You just can’t.” Streep’s turn as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” is another none-too-classic example.
That’s despite the fact that Streep gives another chameleonic performance, almost two chameleonic performances, in two distinct time periods: in the 1970s and 80s, as Thatcher in her prime, and in the modern day, as Thatcher in the throes of dementia, hermit-like and trapped in conversation with the ghost of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). As usual, Streep’s work is technically remarkable. Age, build, posture, accent, hair, temperament, Streep nails them all. If you want to be awed by a performance, “The Iron Lady” is for you.
If you wanted to be awed by a movie, though, you’ll need to look elsewhere. The early scenes establish the structure: Streep as the decrepit Thatcher attempts to finally get rid of her husband’s possessions. Rummaging through her past keys flashbacks to Thatcher’s early life, falling in love with Denis and rising to power in the Conservative Party. At first the backwards glances are brief. But as the film progresses, they begin to dominate the runtime until Thatcher — and director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan — are totally lost in her memories. The increasingly frantic pacing of the flashbacks may have been Lloyd and Morgan’s way of mimicking the confusion of an aging woman’s mind, but they also kill whatever little drama there was in the film. Eventually “The Iron Lady” devolves into a SportsCenter highlight reel of a woman’s life, a series of meaningless and insubstantial scenelets whose only evident purpose is to make sure Streep has plenty of showcases for her impressive performance.
Streep is undeniably impressive throughout, and her resolve and determination through the weaker stretches of the film is positively Thatcherian. But whether she demanded it be or not, “The Iron Lady” is less of a movie than a showcase for Streep. There’s no tension here, just that big voice and brassy haircut. To use another sports metaphor, if Streep were a baseball player, she would be Barry Bonds: blessed with incredible natural gifts but seemingly more interested in personal accomplishments than team ones. Bonds holds all the home run records but he never won a World Series. Similarly, Streep’s won every accolade imaginable for her work, but the Best Picture Oscars have been few and far between (the last one came for 1985’s “Out of Africa”).
Come to think of it, what about “Game of Shadows” as her next project?