When I first heard that they were making a movie about Margaret Thatcher, I was worried. Even though it has been more than 20 years since she stepped down as Prime Minister, she remains a hugely controversial figure. To the right, she is a goddess; the woman who almost single-handedly put the ‘Great’ back in Great Britain and turned back the tide of socialism.
To the left, she is a demon; the woman who brutalized striking miners and drove the country to riot over the unpopular poll tax. I was afraid that ‘The Iron Lady’ would portray her as one of those two caricatures. Although that was not the case, the film ultimately proved to be something of a disappointment.
The Iron Lady begins in the present day, as a frail Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) goes to buy a pint of milk. When she returns home, she proceeds to sit down to breakfast with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). They talk and joke, but it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems.
When one of Thatcher’s caretakers enters the kitchen, we are shown a POV shot from her perspective, which reveals that Thatcher is actually sitting alone. Throughout the rest of the film, Thatcher will interact with her dead husband, and although her caretakers believe this is a side-effect of her dementia, it is strongly implied that this is actually a conscious coping mechanism Thatcher has created to deal with her grief.
Thatcher starts to reminisce about her past, and we see her memories in the form of flashbacks. At first, they are merely a disconnected series of vignettes, but they eventually run together and form a continuous narrative. We watch as a young middle-class grocer’s daughter tries to break into the aristocratic, male-dominated Tory party.
When she eventually wins a seat in Parliament, we see her struggle to fit in as one of the few female MPs. Eventually, she gains her footing, and rises from Secretary of State for Education to Leader of the Conservative Party to Prime Minister. Along the way, she is motivated by an apparently earnest desire to “do something” and change Britain for the better. But her passion turns to dogmatism, and her relationship with her Cabinet, and the British people, steadily deteriorate.
The intertwining of these two storylines, past and present, could make for incredibly compelling cinema, but in this case, it falls flat. The political storyline is probably the weaker of the two. Because it is told as a series of flashbacks, it never really develops into a satisfying narrative.
Instead, we see a series of vignettes: Thatcher on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street after winning her first term as Prime Minister, Thatcher deciding to go to war over the Falkland Islands, Thatcher humiliating her deputy, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) and causing a chain of events that leads to her own downfall. But these episodes are often presented without context, which greatly lessens their impact.
The most striking example of this is the scene where Thatcher’s close friend Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) is killed by a car bomb. Because the two of them only shared a few scenes together, the emotional impact of his sudden death is greatly diminished. The scenes with Geoffrey Howe are also curiously bland. His resignation would have been much more powerful if the viewer had realized that he had been in Thatcher’s Cabinet since the very beginning, and had been one of her most trusted lieutenants.
The film does deserve praise for its even-handed treatment of Thatcher’s politics. She is portrayed as neither the savior-goddess of the right or the vicious harridan of the left. It would have been easy to resort to caricature, but The Iron Lady does a nice job of emphasizing Thatcher’s humanity in both storylines.
Meryl Streep definitely deserves praise for her performance as Thatcher. She has done an excellent job of copying Thatcher’s voice, a feat made even more incredible by the fact that Streep is not a British actress. The makeup department was similarly adept at making her look like Thatcher.
Streep’s performance has garnered her an Oscar nomination, and it’s richly deserved. Jim Broadbent also did a fine job portraying Denis Thatcher. He captures Denis’ bombast and irreverence quite well. Anthony Head is sadly underutilized though. He deserved a much bigger role.
The Iron Lady could have been an excellent film had it focused on either Thatcher’s political story, or her personal struggles as she copes with old age and the loss of her husband. But by trying to do both, it bites off more than it can chew.
OVERALL GRADE: B