Even those hardy souls who endured Mamma Mia! -- and who therefore have reason to fear director Phyllida Lloyd's magnificent incompetence -- are likely to be shocked by the sheer awfulness of The Iron Lady. While the film's publicity machine does its best to distract us with extravagant praise for yet another of Meryl Streep's accent-uber-alles performances, this demeaning biopic of Margaret Thatcher reduces one of the 20th century's most important political figures to a bossy, intractable scold.
That's when it's not reducing her to a fragile, dementia-addled shell living entirely in the past. In the interest of full disclosure, I was still living in Britain during Thatcher's first of three terms as prime minister (1979-83), and I vehemently opposed her policies. But there's a reason Conservative members of Parliament recently called for a House of Commons debate on the film, specifically citing its lack of "respect, good manners and good taste." Whichever side of the aisle you inhabit, you will leave The Iron Lady feeling disgusted; you will also feel cheated — of information, insight or even an identifiable point of view.
This last is all the more egregious, considering that Thatcher herself held nothing but contempt for wafflers and placaters. But Lloyd and her scriptwriter, Abi Morgan, get nothing right: not the tone (more farce than biography) nor the focus (mental decline over Oxford-educated reasoning) nor even the breadth and magnitude of the woman's accomplishments.
Instead we get a whistle-stop tour of career highlights that squishes every major event into a thoughtless montage, devoid of context or import. From the time young Margaret (played by an excellent Alexandra Roach) enters Parliament in 1959, to her eventual resignation as prime minister over the poll-tax riots in 1990, this soulless chronicle gives no hint of the forces that shaped her.
Worst of all is the film's repetitive and degrading framing device, in which a nightgown-clad Thatcher, who has suffered from Alzheimer's since 2000, dodders around her home having imaginary conversations with her dead husband, Denis (a puckish Jim Broadbent). Streep, as expected, nails the impersonation -- as do the hair and makeup wizards, with plenty of Oscar-baiting close-ups — and even adds sensitivity and subtlety to a screenplay not much concerned with either.
But everything about the film feels designed to diminish: whether whining petulantly about the price of milk or the nanny state, this Thatcher is more pitiable than admirable. The sexism is horrifying: A biopic of Ronald Reagan that fixated on his mental disintegration and dependence on Nancy would be unthinkable.
Thatcher may have been reviled — Elvis Costello famously envisioned dancing on her grave -- but she is also the only woman ever to hold the post of prime minister, and she held it longer than anyone before or since. She stared down IRA hunger strikers and held the National Union of Mineworkers at bay for a year; started the Falklands War with virtually no party support; privatized national industries and fought to protect Britain's currency from the jaws of the EU. When today's political candidates can scarcely maintain a position from one speech to the next, Thatcher's principled rigidity seems particularly remarkable, yet none of these conflicts warrant more than a few seconds of lazy newsreel footage.
Maudlin and ham-fisted -- when the young Thatcher asserts "I cannot die washing up a teacup," we know that's exactly what she'll be doing as the curtain falls -- The Iron Lady is cinematic scrap metal. Watching it, you would never know she was a strong-willed beacon for many young British women who aspired to more than housekeeping and child-rearing: Even when we loathed her policies, we could not help but long for her spine. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.