Meryl Streep is a towering presence as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, a time-hopping biopic that sees her reunite with Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd. The movie itself doesn't live up to Streep's magnificent turn, instead sweeping through the key moments in Thatcher's life to assemble a surface-level portrait of one of Britain's most divisive leaders.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan uses Thatcher in old age and stricken by dementia as a device to flash back to her humble beginnings as a grocer's daughter and turbulent 11-year stint in Downing Street. In the present, Thatcher is alone and confined to her home as she imagines conversations with her dead husband Dennis (a playful and eccentric Jim Broadbent). Her efforts to clear out Dennis' old clothes and belongings trigger memories, allowing director Lloyd to shoot back in time to relive Thatcher's political career.
We see Thatcher as a young woman (played by Alexandra Roach) getting a place at Oxford and experiencing early political rejection before gaining a seat in Parliament. Her relationship with Dennis (Harry Lloyd) is established and Lloyd paints her as a fish out of water in the House of Commons. Rising fast in Westminster, Thatcher soon finds herself leading the country after a whirlwind montage that sees a crack team make her over to look like leadership material.
With such a controversial figure at its heart, The Iron Lady plays it awfully safe. Even Thatcher's eventual resignation from office gets short shrift, with a belligerent cabinet meeting rant acting as the catalyst for her downfall. An HBO miniseries may have been the better format in which to explore the subject's life in depth.
In fairness, Streep has stressed that The Iron Lady is a story more about grief than politics. It's in these former moments that the film is most effective, as the elderly Thatcher tries desperately to accept the loss of her husband. She cuts a tragic figure, particularly when she's wheeled out for numerous functions to act as a Tory celebrity despite ill health.
Streep completely dominates the film, effortlessly moving between humour ("Shall I play mother?" being a highlight), fierce will and pathos. The supporting players make a fine job of it too, particularly Broadbent and Olivia Colman as Carole Thatcher (battling through a dodgy fake nose). The likes of Anthony Head and Richard E Grant also play small but crucial roles (Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine respectively), as loyal Conservatives who lose faith in their leader.
Ultimately, though, this is the Meryl Streep show - an Oscar-nomination and box office success with The King's Speech crowd is all but guaranteed.