Just give Streep the damn Oscar already

But no Best Picture for The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep is so predictably excellent as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady that you may wish the Academy saved us all a lot of bother by just handing her an Oscar on the first day she walked onto the set. It’s hard to believe there’s another American actress who could master the role’s highly particular demands from replicating the former British PM’s voice (which itself changed from thin and reedy to something less harsh after consultants convinced her of the political benefits of speaking in a lower pitch) to conveying the elderly Thatcher’s expressions of confusion and panic as she tries to disguise the worsening effects of Alzheimer’s.

Really the only thing that could prevent Streep’s triumph in the best actress category is the wrongheadedness of nearly everything else about The Iron Lady . Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (who previously teamed with Streep on the hit movie adaptation of Mamma Mia! ) and written by Abi Morgan (who recently earned raves for writing the BBC mini-series The Hour and co-scripting Shame ) it purports to delve into the public and private lives of one of the most divisive political figures of the 20th century yet is continually stymied by its reluctance to take any real stance on her. The film’s increasingly fanciful and theatrical nature comes to seem like another dodge. The woman merits a biopic as crafty and cunning as she was in her prime but what we get is something more like a sentimental musical minus the tunes.

Being the professional that she is Streep maintains her standards despite the film’s descent. She and the movie are at their best in the present-day scenes of Thatcher pottering around her house and enjoying conversations with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) who’s excellent company despite being dead for years. He’s a figment of her imagination you see though it’s hard to tell whether her uncertainty of mind means we should doubt the veracity of the film’s many flashbacks too. These segments chart Thatcher’s trajectory from lowly grocer’s daughter to all-powerful dismantler of Britain’s welfare state. Her motivations are presented as a staunch belief in the value of self-reliance and a desire for revenge on the stuffy elitists who once looked down on her. Lloyd and Morgan also want viewers to celebrate Thatcher’s victory over the chauvinists who populate the country’s political class. Yet any such efforts to present her as a lower-middle-class feminist heroine are undermined by the counter-suggestion that the real secret to Thatcher’s success was that she was more ruthless and hard-headed than any of her rivals regardless of gender.

The movie’s lack of clarity and conviction only worsens as the staging becomes more overtly theatrical during Thatcher’s political undoing at the hands of her former whipping boys. It’s all weirdly reminiscent of Mamma Mia! s production numbers though a more apt reference point is the Italian film Il Divo an equally operatic yet more acute study in power corruption and lies. The producers of the Academy Awards ceremony may want to skip those sequences when they’re looking for clips of Streep lest they cause anyone to doubt this misbegotten endeavour’s Oscar-worthiness.