Great Britain experienced a tumultuous eleven years under the conservative rule of Margaret Thatcher. During her years as Prime Minister Britain sank into recession, unemployment reached record highs, the manufacturing industry disappeared, and strikes were widespread. Supporters of Thatcher claim that her Government modernised an ailing economic power and ushered in radical but necessary reforms. On the contrary, her critics claim that these reforms came at a great social cost, with a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor. One thing everyone can agree on is that the ‘Iron Lady’ was a controversial and deeply divisive Prime Minister.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady is a bio-pic about Thatcher, with Meryl Streep playing the Prime Minister. Much of the film is actually set in the present, with a frail and elderly Thatcher bumbling around her residence in the grips of dementia-hell. Thatcher is often shown hallucinating, conversing with her long-deceased husband, Denis (played by Jim Broadbent). The camera often pulls back to the perspective of a third party in the room (usually Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, played by Olivia Colman), revealing that the former-PM is talking to herself. These uncomfortable scenes are repeated, punctuated by Thatcher recalling memories from her career. The flashbacks cover her political awakening (in these early periods the young Denis is played by Harry Lloyd; the young Margaret by Alexandra Roach), rise as a political force and her years as Prime Minister.
Meryl Streep is mesmerising as Thatcher. She does not just play her. She is her. Not only does she look uncannily like Thatcher, she has captured the mannerisms, voice and steely resolve. Together it paints a picture of just how firm and decisive the Prime Minister could be. Do not be surprised if Streep adds a second Oscar for Best Actress to her mantlepiece for this effort.
As good as Streep’s performance is, it is not enough to lift The Iron Lady into the echelon of great political bio-pics. Given the controversy surrounding her years in office, you would expect a Margaret Thatcher bio-pic to make some kind of statement about her contribution to Great Britain. At the very least, you would expect that such a film would adequately explore the pivotal decisions and moments, allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. The Iron Lady does neither effectively.
While Thatcher’s real-life children, Mark and Carol, have described the film as a ‘left-wing fantasy’, the reality is The Iron Lady does not take sides at all. It does not delve anywhere near deep enough into her career to offer a stance or even implore the viewer to decide for themselves. Pivotal moments are rarely covered in more than a passing montage or a brief soundbite. The Cold War and her relationship with her ‘philosophical soul-mate’, Ronald Reagen, is ignored almost entirely, while public opposition to her leadership is reduced to brief clips of protests. Only the Falklands conflict of 1982 receives more than a passing look.
Indeed, for a film that is by definition about politics, there is very little politics. Really, too much of the film is spent showing Thatcher today, as a frail, old lady. While these scenes do effectively contrast her strength and iron will as a leader with the reality of old-age, they come at the expense of any analysis of her time in office. They also leave the viewer with an overwhelming sense of sympathy towards an ill, elderly woman, distracting viewers from passing judgement on the merits of her career. The scenes of Thatcher today could have been reduced to bookends at the start and finish of the film.
Despite these flaws, The Iron Lady is still a film worth seeing. For one, Meryl Streep’s performance is worth the price of admission alone. Secondly, while the story does not quite hit the back of the net, it is still a decent offering that effectively illustrates Margaret Thatcher’s iron will and hints at the turmoil of 1980s Britain.
There is a fantastic film waiting to be made about Margaret Thatcher. This is not quite it.