An oft-discussed topic among movie nerds is whether biopics can successfully be made. After all, a person’s life story doesn’t usually fit neatly within a three-act narrative structure. Obviously, Hollywood has made successful biopics in the past, one of which I consider the greatest film ever made (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA). Among other successes are AMADEUS, RAGING BULL, RAY, SHINE, ED WOOD, and 2010’s THE KING’S SPEECH. Of course, for each of these, we have a slew of failures and some that immediately come to mind are ALI, BEYOND THE SEA, ALEXANDER, and Clint Eastwood’s recent J. EDGAR. THE IRON LADY is neither a success, but nor is it a complete failure. Watching it, I got a sense that the material was simply too much for its director to work with and mold into a workable movie. The events that formed Margaret Thatcher’s life are not necessarily epic material, but Thatcher’s life was controversial enough to require a solid director who could either manage telling the prime minister’s past in a way that doesn’t feel rushed or, like in THE KING’S SPEECH, focus on one aspect of the woman’s life. As a result, the stellar performance given by Meryl Streep is completely wasted in THE IRON LADY.

THE IRON LADY is the story of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Streep). The story is told in a distracting nonlinear fashion as it attempts to chronicle the rise and eventual fall of England’s first female prime minister. The story begins with Thatcher’s London childhood during the London Blitzkreig of World War II, continues through her political rise to Parliament, election as Prime Minister, and dealing with the crises of England’s economic turmoil and the war over the Falkland Islands. The film also features Jim Broadbent, who plays Thatcher’s very loyal and committed husband, Denis Thatcher.

The biggest problem with this film is the disjointed manner in which the story is told. It begins in the present as we witness an elderly Thatcher beginning to succumb to dementia. Alone, she imagines herself still living with her now-deceased husband. As interesting it is to see Thatcher become a shell of the powerful figure she once was, the film stays in the present for far too long. Had it not been for Streep’s mesmerizing performance, the movie would have completely lost my attention within the first 10 minutes. Worse still, when the story finally shifts to Thatcher’s past, her story is presented in short bits and montages. Using the present as the unifying narrative thread of the movie was not only unnecessary, but it severely detracted from allowing the audience to understand who Margaret Thatcher was. For example, there is a brief scene where Thatcher announces to her family that she is going to run for Prime Minister. Her husband is upset by this news and accuses her of putting her political ambitions above her family. The scene (and some others) suggests some of the difficulties Thatcher’s husband and children had with not having Margaret around. Unfortunately, this is barely explored. Moreover, except for the hotel bombing where Thatcher and her husband were staying at, the film practically neglects dealing with the tension between the IRA and England. Overall, I wanted to see a deeper exploration of Thatcher’s life instead of seeing a cursory and rushed treatment of it.

The only sequence that stands out during the entire film is where Thatcher decides to wage war against Argentina to reclaim the Falkland Islands. This was a highly unpopular move, especially given England’s weak military power and the economic crisis that it was struggling with. However, despite everyone’s dire warnings of a probable defeat, Thatcher forged on and unleashed her navy on the Argentines. Although the sequence is presented in a stylized montage thats reminiscent of a music video, its an effective sequence.

As I mentioned, Meryl Streep is astounding as Margaret Thatcher and she is the only reason to see the film. Streep is gifted enough as an actress to avoid playing a mere caricature of the woman. She finds the essence of Margaret Thatcher and gives us a true portrayal of her. What makes this performance great isn’t just the fact that Streep is made to look like Thatcher and she successfully mimics the woman’s deep voice. Streep completely embodies her so that every raise of an eyebrow, blink of an eye, gesture, and step is done to convey Margaret Thatcher. Its easy to discount Streep’s performance here after the multitude of amazing performances she has given throughout her career. However, it can truly be said that her Margaret Thatcher is one of the best performances she has given in her career.

With Meryl Streep overshadowing the entire film, the great performance given by Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher seems almost like an afterthought. Broadbent provides the film with humor and warmth. Although Denis had his own business and he was very successful at it, he took a backseat to his wife’s political ambitions. At the same time, he eventually resigned himself to the fact that Margaret’s first priority would always be politics and he would always stand in her shadow. Broadbent does a very good job here and its easy to forget the strength of his performance compared to Streep.

As much as I enjoyed watching Meryl Streep, THE IRON LADY is an otherwise missed opportunity to tell a great story about Margaret Thatcher. At the end of the film, you don’t feel like you really learned anything about the woman except for the fact that she was very ambitious, hard-headed, and independent. Those traits she possessed are shown in a series of stylistic montages that quickly breeze through her life without spending any time exploring them.

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