Give The Iron Lady points for transparency: The film's centerpiece is shots of Meryl Streep practicing her accent, the foundation of her biennial Oscar bid. She's been Danish and Polish and Australian and whatever Julia Child was—she's like a sailor with a different drawl in every port. This time out, she's playing Margaret Thatcher, who in fact did train to lower her register in the 1979 prime minister campaign. So we get a montage of Streep bellowing like she's rehearsing British Channel whale songs. It is a gesture toward the essential falseness of Thatcher (who had to practice to sound like a no-nonsense mum) and an inadvertent reminder of the vaunted hollowness of Streep. When has she ever given herself to the screen—or allowed anyone to share it? Instead, she does impressions. If Ben Stiller ever makes Night at Madame Tussauds, he should cast Streep as each waxwork, so we can be impressed that she looks and sounds almost exactly like everybody.
If Streep seems particularly fit to play Thatcher, it's because the Tory leader became a synonym for "ungenerous." Yet I left The Iron Lady knowing no more about Thatcher than when I walked in—or possibly less. My understanding, based primarily on Martin Amis novels and punk songs of the era, was that she took a proud nation in decline and turned it into a churlish nation in rapid decline. But the movie, directed by Mamma Mia!'s Phyllida Lloyd, doesn't address her effects on the isles, except for a few montages of angry Londoners setting things on fire. (This could be visual shorthand for the mood of Londoners in 1666, or last Wednesday.) The Iron Lady is that most condescending of objects: the "sympathetic" biopic of a conservative directed by a liberal, reducing all ideologies to personal hang-ups. Thatcher's speeches are boilerplate let-them-eat-austerity stuff, with the only memorable exception coming when she takes umbrage at a doctor inquiring about how she's feeling. "Ask me what I'm thinking," she demands. It's a little astonishing screenwriter Abi Morgan could pen that line, then ascribe Thatcher's entire hard-line Northern Ireland policy to sorrow at the car-bomb killing of an adviser.
In an even more patronizing touch, this is a biopic where the conservative spends most of her time fighting off voices in her head. At least half the picture is dedicated to an elderly Thatcher wandering through her quarters in a housedress, like Kermit the Frog at his mansion in The Muppets, talking to her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). Even in this condition, she is stern: "Denis, you're dead!" she informs the hallucination. The Iron Lady's failure of taste is even more incredible when you remember that Thatcher is alive. The only equivalent I can imagine is if somebody made a Ronald Reagan movie in 1994 called The Gipper's Got Alzheimer's. Why would the filmmakers possibly choose this approach?
For a very simple reason: It draws attention to Streep's acting chops—not only can she play Margaret Thatcher, she can play a senile Margaret Thatcher!—and away from a moral reckoning. It's the same ploy Clint Eastwood used in caking Leonardo DiCaprio with old-age makeup for J. Edgar. Very elderly people are piteous and endearing, and if you ask audiences to pet an old bear, maybe they won't fear being bitten. But this is a refusal to grapple with the full human, just as it's a dodge to emphasize how very brave Thatcher was to make a career in a man's world, without asking what kind of world she then created. It's setting the same low bar as Streep's continued reliance on impersonating public figures: If we're awed by how lifelike she is, we won't judge too harshly. This movie doesn't grant Margaret Thatcher the dignity of being a real bitch.
35 SEE IT: The Iron Lady is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia, Mill Plain, City Center and Evergreen.