Meryl Streep is good-to-great in meh-to-good ‘Iron Lady’

It’s really striking, the similarities between Phyllida Lloyd’s “The Iron Lady” and Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar.” Both attempt to paint a sympathetic portrait of a conservative politician whose ideals were eventually warped and obsessed upon. Both ultimately whitewash those ideals in favor of broad, glossed-over history lessons built from lazily structured screenplays. And both feature leading performances that, in better films, would likely be no-brainers for Oscar wins.

Lloyd’s film begins with aged former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher having difficulty merely buying milk in a brave new world that has moved on ahead of her. It initiates the viewer with a dementia-stricken Thatcher and finds some success in using mundane daily encounters — a dinner party place setting, a tea cup — to ignite her memory and send the narrative back in time for the usual biopic foundations. But that ultimately gives way to rather arbitrary flashbacks to cover her life in politics quite broadly, rarely finding time to dig in on the various human hues with which it wants to paint its subject.

Indeed, Streep brings a lot of humanity to the role. There is a love story here (with Thatcher’s husband, Denis, played as a hallucinatory companion by Jim Broadbent). There is the story of how Thatcher’s upbringing forged her sense of self-sufficiency. There is the story of a woman’s place in government being equal to a man’s. And there is the story of the casualties of war and their impact on a leader.

But the film’s need to cram in all the history does a disservice to these more nuanced elements. At the same time, that cramming offers up a blanching of Thatcherism that rings as a missed opportunity to critique or at least comment toward recent UK politics. Chalk it up as another parallel to “J. Edgar.”

Still, I liked what Lloyd was doing with cinematographer Elliot Davis in a number of areas. I liked what the editing was attempting here and there. The film was trying to be a different sort of biopic, but it just ultimately succumbs to the formula despite itself.

Nevertheless, I’d call Streep firmly in the Best Actress race. She plays the character as a strong-willed Education Secretary in the 1970s, an unlikely Prime Minister with grit in the 1980s and an elderly woman clinging to her memories in the present. She’s so good that a lived-in portrayal like this has come to be expected, but then again, she’s kind of hampered from really taking off with the performance due to inherent limitations in what the screenplay gives her.

I don’t know that this is the performance to bring her her second lead actress Oscar in nearly 30 years, but it will be an interesting sprint between her and Viola Davis. And indeed, I do think it’s between the two. And though the category seems to be sealed off to much competition (Glenn Close, Charlize Theron and Michelle Williams being the other generally agreed-upon three), I feel like something could give when Rooney Mara’s potentially star-making turn in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” rolls around.

Oh, one more “J. Edgar” parallel. The aging makeup work on Broadbent and particularly Streep is fantastic in the film and consistently on screen. I think that will be another real race to watch, though the work in “The Iron Lady” is much more organic.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Academy responds to the film. I get the feeling it’s the kind of demographic that will take to it. If so, a nomination for Best Original Screenplay (from “Shame” co-writer Abi Morgan) wouldn’t be entirely out of the question. But I expect at the end of the day, the awards chances on this one are all about the lady at the center of “The Iron Lady.”

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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