The takeaway from the new film The Iron Lady is that elderly Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) suffers from dementia and frequently converses with her long-dead, still-doting husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). The biopic treats as an afterthought Thatcher's stature as Great Britain's first female prime minister and a transformative political figure.
The Iron Lady's opening scene finds an elderly, unrecognized Thatcher at a shop buying milk, and looking more like a befuddled pensioner than the world's most powerful woman. The biopic dutifully flashes back to Thatcher's rise from a grocer's ambitious daughter (Alexandra Roach) to a trail-blazing Tory politician. But director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan (who co-wrote Shame) seem more comfortable with Thatcher in her dotage as she rattles around a gray flat under the concerned care of her handlers.
The film sells an image of Thatcher as a perpetually alienated woman. As a junior member of Parliament, her colleagues harrumph at her intrusion into the old boy's network. Once she ascends to Number 10 Downing Street, the authority of her office further separates her from people. Lloyd presents Thatcher as either the lone woman amid a scrum of male politicians, or in the backseat of limousines, looking away from the enraged protesters at the window.
Overall, The Iron Lady proves too wishy-washy to voice an opinion on Thatcher. Did her conservatism represent the culmination of her working-class background, or a betrayal of it? Meryl Streep brings all the emotional depth to her performance that you'd expect from the acting powerhouse, and she and Broadbent offer a genuinely touching account of lifelong romance. But where a film like The Queen presents clever, insightful tipping points in contemporary British politics, The Iron Lady balks at making a stand.