Director: Phyllidia Lloyd
Few figures in modern politics were (or are) as divisive as Margaret Thatcher. As British Prime Minister she was liked and loathed in equal measure, but has segued into a quiet retirement since her resignation in the face of a Conservative leadership challenge in 1990. Her political career was turbulent and full of incident, but The Iron Lady chooses to spend about half its running time focused on the retirement. That is but one of its many mistakes.
There can be no doubt that Meryl Streep’s performance as Thatcher is yet another great one in a career full of greats, especially considering how much she has to do here. The Iron Lady decides not to be yet another tick-the-boxes biopic, but instead decides to focus on Thatcher in the present day. We first meet Thatcher buying a pint of milk and showing disdain for the increased price, then hobbling back to her home in time for breakfast. Streep hobbles along under aged make-up whilst still preserving Maggie’s inherent sense of dignity. However, her dignified efforts are undone once you realize that Thatcher isn’t dead yet! Abi Morgan’s (Shame) script must work with a certain amount of presumption, but trying to interpret her thoughts and feelings is unavoidably intrusive. Thatcher is presented as a doddery old bird, hallucinating her already-dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, the crazy old uncle of British acting greatness) into existence and having conversations with him, to the frustration of her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman, effective). Thatcher’s family and supporters have expressed their disappointment with this portrayal, and it is understandable; it’s a dithery and impersonal portrayal of an old woman who probably is best left alone. Still, Streep does hold onto that underlying dignity, but also shows her as human and vaguely (sym)pathetic. Despite the impersonality of it, the scenes between Maggie and Denis‘ ghost are the most affecting, and are a lot more interesting than the flashbacks to her ‘glory’ days.
For all of Streep’s efforts, Morgan and director Phyllidia Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) have no clue what to make of Thatcher. The flashbacks to her rise to power and certain events (the Falklands War, the Brighton bombing, her resignation) are horribly narrow. This is the woman who created Thatcherism, and yet it goes largely unexplored. She is portrayed as a feminist (a label Thatcher herself rejected) and as a victim of backstabbing (cue Anthony Head and Richard E. Grant as Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine respectively). The film attempts to show what influenced Thatcher, but neglects to show adequately the effects of her decisions. The Iron Lady was never going to win over her detractors, but reducing the poll tax riots and miner’s strikes to musical montages is little short of insulting. The opposition benches are portrayed as idiots and Maggie can do no wrong, or so it seems.
The Iron Lady manages the incredible feat of alienating all potential audiences; anyone with any knowledge of British politics will slap their heads in disbelief, whilst her supporters will be up in arms at the insensitivity of it all. It’s both historical whitewash and nosy probe, saved only by Streep’s performance. Margaret Thatcher divided opinion in her time, but The Iron Lady should unite audiences in its hideousness.