The Iron Lady Review
Now aged eighty-six, Margaret Thatcher has already been depicted in detail in several screen dramas and is well on her way to becoming a mythological figure. The Iron Lady, with its much-anticipated central performance from Meryl Streep, can only further this perhaps disconcerting trend in Thatcher hagiography. The recent BBC drama Margaret dwelt on the last days of her reign as prime minister, and The Long Road to Finchley did the same for her early years in politics, showing her struggle to penetrate the male-dominated Tory Party ranks. Going back in time, the 2002 The Falklands Play was centred on Thatcher’s part in that crisis and her eventual triumph. The Iron Lady contains elements from all three of these works, using as a framing story Thatcher’s current predicament as an old lady suffering from dementia, with snatches of the past manifesting as flashbacks.
Undergoing care and containment in her own home, Thatcher’s life is managed by daughter Carole (Olivia Colman) and she also has visits and imaginary conversations with dead husband Denis, played by the ever-reliable Jim Broadbent. Her aim in this strand is to finally clear out Denis’s clothes, lay his ghost and move on, and the presence of Jim Broadbent lends it a Mike Leigh quality of pathos, but without Leigh’s biting bittersweet undercurrent. Thatcher is also subject to reminiscences, such as where a current terrorist event triggers memories of the Brighton bombing of the Tory Party Conference.
In the main though, Thatcher’s past is presented in conventional chronological biopic format. The young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) is shown working in her grocer father’s shop, in 1940s rosy-hued nostalgia mode; then she meets the young Denis (Harry Lloyd) and works her way into politics, gradually becoming a force to be reckoned with. Streep takes over the reins to find Thatcher as a minister in the Edward Heath government in the early ’70s, and from here we get the well-known story of her overthrow of Heath, the rise to premierhood and her first term in office, with a lot of attention focussed on the Falklands War, using actual footage.
This all makes for a fair warm-up act, but then there’s a virtual six-year gap and we’re into her downfall, which is pencilled in lightly, almost glossed over. Much more should have been made of Thatcher’s fall, as it’s clearly the most dramatic part of her life story and a magnificent tale of hubris, where she really believed she could do no wrong, and the Tory Party collectively woke up to the fact she’d become a liability rather than an asset and ruthlessly expunged her, gaining another seven years in power under the colourless John Major. In The Iron Lady there is one really good scene where Thatcher argues in favour of the poll tax and bossily rebuffs a series of reasonable objections from ministers, brooking absolutely no opposition. Streep perfectly brings out the ‘monstrous dictator’ side of her character here, and in her refusal to accept any criticism she seems mildly demented already. But in the context of the film as a whole, this scene becomes just a fleeting episode, glimpsed as though out of a train window.
So, for a film about a political figure, the politics itself gets treated very sketchily, in a much more lightweight fashion than in any of the aforementioned BBC TV dramas. This same sketchy tendency shows up in the shallow characterisation of Thatcher’s political colleagues. Only Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), Edward Heath (John Sessions) and nemesis Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) register as significant, and the rest are like part of a blurry impressionist background. Michael Foot (Michael Pennington) is the only recognisable Labour figure, so long-time opposition leader Neil Kinnock doesn’t appear, and neither do other Tory notables such as Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson. In fact many of the ministers in the collective scenes are credited merely as ‘Cabinet Minister’, eschewing the bother of giving them identities. One might think that a director genuinely interested in the Thatcher era would go for a hyperrealist rather than an impressionistic approach, using striking look-alikes for these figures so that we could spot them even if we didn’t hear from them.
At the heart of The Iron Lady lies a symbiosis between director Phyllida Lloyd and lead actress Meryl Streep, who worked together before on Lloyd’s only previous film Mamma Mia, hardly heavyweight material. The intention was to use Streep’s huge talents to create a moving portrait of the woman, with the reasons for her fame taking second place. And so the film becomes not so much about Thatcher, but about Streep’s performance, and one can choose from the box of critic’s clichés in order to describe it — ‘astonishing mimicry’, ‘note-perfect impersonation’ — that kind of thing. Certainly all these phrases are fully valid, and Streep does bring Thatcher to life with an accuracy that some might find chilling — the stern facial expressions and the hectoring voice and body language of her prime combining with the bemused, sad but still fiery aspects of her dotage to produce a commanding piece of acting.
Of course The Iron Lady classically fits the mould of British Stately Figure Biopic, a crowd-pleasing, internationally appealing, Oscar-contending genre that would include the likes of The King’s Speech and The Queen. The King’s Speech worked well in this regard, because rather than be a straightforward biopic it had a nice angle — the stammering. The Queen succeeded similarly because it chose to richly detail a key slice of the life — the royal crisis precipitated by Princess Diana’s death — rather than tackle the whole. But the special angle of The Iron Lady, Thatcher in old-age decline — which has attracted criticism from today’s Tory grandees for its insensitivity — is, lets face it, simply not very interesting, despite Streep’s excellent portrayal. Love her or hate her, Thatcher the politician was an unparalleled figure; but Thatcher’s dementia is not much different to anybody else’s dementia. In this respect dementia is the great leveller. Yet we are given many protracted scenes of the old lady in a befuddled state, which add up to little in the end, whilst the stuff of real interest, the politics, is scaled back — and this is the film’s crucial weakness. Ultimately it boils down to a showcase for Streep’s considerable talents — an acting masterclass exposition — and there’s not much more point to it than that; it leaves no lasting impression or sense of having discovered anything new.