Meryl Streep has accumulated a staggering amount of award nominations over her lifetime. She's won quite a few as well, but, it's the high number of mentions that makes it easy to forget that the last time she actually won an Oscar was in the early 80's. 1983, to be exact. I don't know where you were, but I was not yet born. So, as much as I keep hearing it, the whole "hasn't she won enough" argument is fairly invalid. When it comes to Oscar statuettes, Streep has exactly two: one lead, one supporting. An even enough pair, certainly, but fairly shocking considering the dogged buzz that seems to follow her from role to role. From a probability standpoint, the odds seem especially in her favor this year, and her performance -when backed up against another biopic impersonation from Michelle Williams- is quite deserving. In her makeup heavy role as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Streep accomplishes great things. The fact of the matter is, however, that while her performance is something to behold, the film itself simply isn't.
Is this a film built around a bravura performance or a performance that expands beyond its modest confines? Streep becomes the Prime Minister, embodying Thatcher over four decades through career highs and the deep, dark, lows of an elderly woman suffering a powerful dementia. We're introduced to Thatcher via a humbling scene in which she sneaks out of her heavily monitored digs to wander the streets and bring back breakfast for herself and the hallucinatory vision of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). The film is the Anglicized twin of Eastwood's J. Edgar: the story of a largely misunderstood, politically divisive figure told with prosthetic appliances and flashbacks. We're rooted in the present, with Margaret battling the ghosts of her past and mulling over her life, wasting away in isolated rooms, forced to listen to her caretakers idly discuss her condition day in and day out. She has her pride, and the film seems to be trying to bring us around and show us why. In The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher is transformed into a tragic figure, a once powerful queen now sealed in a tower, alone, and slowly going mad in spite of her self. Each flashback reaches into deep into Thatcher's past to construct a patchwork of isolated moments: election runs, make-overs, first days in Parliament in a baby blue suit, panic on the streets of London. All of it, however, is meaningless.
Every memory, every moment of The Iron Lady centers not around showing us who Margaret Thatcher was, but on reconstructing the character. The story becomes an absolute muddle, focusing for a moment here and a moment there, unable to decide whether it's an impartial portrait, a love story, a feminist girl power tale, or merely the sad saga of a doddering old woman. There's tense moments of drama, but the film quickly glosses over them in favor of moving on to the next set piece, the next hit from the highlight reel, the next close-up on a slowly processing pair of patent leather heels. The only real emotion is drawn from modern day Thatcher, the one here shown as plagued by hallucinatory fantasies. The present is the only place the film has to step up. It can't run off of history or recorded moments, but only on imagined fictions of what's happening day in day out at Thatcher's residence. Streep creates a version of the former Prime Minister we are able to believe, and against the poor odds of the script and format, she's given innumerable opportunities to act her way out of impossibly tight corners, with overwhelming success. Her performance extends beyond mere impersonation and offers something of the determined, quick, controlled woman the film's script is too weak to effectively put forth. The film is lucky to have her. With her, it has secured a cheap seat in movie history. Without her? There's nothing.