British screenwriter Abi Morgan has had a good year, with credits including sex-addiction drama Shame (co-written with director Steve McQueen), the six-part serial The Hour (which aired stateside on BBC America), and now The Iron Lady, an impressionistic biopic of Margaret Thatcher. It's an impressive succession, but the unfortunate side effect of having so many samples strung together consecutively is that it accentuates a writer's patterns and proclivities. In the case of Morgan, it's a kind of woolliness. I defended Shame's lack of substantive backstory because of the overall strength of the picture – its tunnel vision felt true to a film about an addict – but The Hour's promising premise of the nascent television news industry intersecting with spy games and the Suez Crisis fell away to soap-opera staples; more apropos exit music for the final episode would have been "Is That All There Is?"
And what of The Iron Lady? Well, that woolliness is the warp and woof of The Iron Lady, which turns the former prime minister's reported dementia into a springboard for abstract touchdowns into Thatcher's timeline. We see her early days as the daughter of a hard-working Lincolnshire grocer; as a young woman (played by Roach), fresh from Oxford and trying to break into politics; squired by a perpetually bemused Denis (Lloyd), whom she eventually marries and has twins with; and, finally, ascension to a Conservative seat in Parliament, with her career culminating in her historic premiership. Toothsome material, to be sure, but The Iron Lady, as directed by Mamma Mia!'s Phyllida Lloyd, has all the heft of a fictionalized This Is Your Life, thick with rah-rah bromides and talk of (egads!) Thatcher's feelings.
This is starting to sound like a pile-on, isn't it? The film still entertains, and that has everything to do with Meryl Streep's dynamo incarnation of Thatcher from middle age on. Aided by the signature helmet hair and a formidable prosthetic nose, Streep nails the politician’s voice and sour-face spitfire. Streep's scenes with Broadbent, who plays the elderly Denis with a playful glint, hum with a loving, lived-in rapport, but that relationship engulfs the whole film, rendering Thatcher's political accomplishments mere anecdote to a marriage. If I may presume: Thatcher probably would have preferred more action, less talk.