What is the purpose of a biography or a biopic? It has to be to provide insight into the life of the person the work examines. To reflect on the life, to educate about the life, to see the effect the individual had (or not) on others and maybe to teach us a bit about ourselves. In that respect, whatever else it may have going for it, The Iron Lady is a failure.
Phyllida Lloyd's direction of Abi Morgan's screenplay provides little to no insight into who Margaret Thatcher is as a person. We are given that she was a wife, a mother, the daughter of a grocer, a conservative, and the leader of her country for more than 10 years. But, that's really it. Meryl Streep, of course, won several awards, including an Oscar, for her portrayal of Thatcher, but that seems as much due to Streep's ability to play a doddering old woman with complete believability as much as anything.
It feels as though it is no longer in fashion to do a straight-up tale of someone's life—the person was born; raised; did x, y, and z as an adult; and passed away (or not)—or at least some portion of that linear story. This tale of Thatcher begins with her as an elderly woman in 2008 and has her constantly remembering various bits and pieces of her life, or discussing said bits and pieces with her deceased husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent).
Much of the film, in fact, has an elderly Thatcher talking to her deceased husband. She is aware that he is dead and not really there (generally anyway), but has the conversations nonetheless. Should one in the audience enter the movie be unaware of much of Thatcher and her life, leaving the film, their biggest question will be if the former Prime Minister in fact has some sort of dementia or if that was just a convenient way for the tale to be told. To leave the audience wondering about Thatcher's mental state in her old age can't be the intent of the film, but it certainly is the result.
Yet, that's exactly where we end up. We get that Thatcher came to power during some sort of issue with union workers striking. We get that she continued to fight against unions. We get that she went to war in the Falklands. We get that she made many people rich, helped end Communism, and had an strained relationship with her children. The way the tale is told we get a whole bunch of half-facts (why were the garbage collectors on strike? what government run operations did she privatize? did her father and her being a woman shape every belief she has ever held?). With all apologies, so much time is spent with her fussing about her home that too little is left for an examination of who she was as a person and the head of government.