Eighties icon, goddess of the conservative right, witch-queen to liberal leftist principles, saviour of British greatness and destroyer of traditional English values, Margaret Thatcher is so many things to so many people to such extent that the word ‘polarizing’ doesn’t even begin to do justice to the effect she continues to have on the UK public. The Iron Lady doesn’t help matters with a poster which shows Meryl Streep in a mischievous mode, twinkly and scheming eyes propped up by a chin jutting out intimidatingly like a torpedo. Initial impression is therefore a story of political intrigue, a machiavellian figure rising to the top of Whitehall and then 10 Downing Street in a tsunami of coruscating speeches, epochal decision-making and epic backstage deal-cutting. The film, however, is much more prosaic, much less exciting, and altogether unsatisfying affair that leaves the audience with little other than Streep’s note-perfect performance as Thatcher.
Taking the form of flashbacks – as these political biographies are wont to do – The Iron Lady begins with an elderly, frail Thatcher and transposes between her and the most dramatic moments from her past. There’s a young Margaret Roberts surviving the blitz to run for MP, Thatcher as education secretary and then leader of the opposition, and, as prime minister, Falklands, the Brighton Hotel bombing and the Heseltine challenge. But these are more interludes than anything else, the focus being firmly on the present, mentally infirm Thatcher, struggling to put her illustrious past and her dead husband Denis out of her mind. Rather than asking questions of her decisions or trying to frame her legacy in context, director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan are more interested in looking at the twilight struggles of a great figure, still one of the few real-world female personalities to offer a Don Corleone-esque mixture of real power and deep pathos, of magnetic charisma and familial vulnerability. The concerns that the movie would veer too close to either hagiography or, in Carol Thatcher’s words, ‘left-wing fantasy’ are almost irrelevant, because it’s not really a political or ideological piece, and to avoid controversy, ticks both for- and against- boxes of her most notable policies and then moves on. Breaking the mine strikes, sinking of the General Belgrano, the poll tax – some of the most incendiary moments of 80s England are duly shown but only as montages, opponents with angry faces and supporters with serious ones, and then it’s back to the old Thatcher talking to herself.
The only other aspect of Thatcher’s life that Lloyd and Morgan engage at length is the ‘against-the-odds’ nature of her rise to power: love her or loath her, it’s hard not to recognize that there is significant drama, not to mention an empowering sense of self-improvement, in a grocer’s daughter (as the film never ceases to remind us) who fought against patrician prejudices to not only reach the top but stay there for over a decade. There is a great shot of Thatcher’s first steps in Westminster, the only colourful dress in a sea of black and gray; and Harold Wilson’s sexist baiting of Thatcher – ‘The lady doth screech too much’ – would be repeated more than thirty years later by David Cameron. But again, the film doesn’t delve too deeply into exactly why, and how, Thatcher went from an aspiring Tory to the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century, with all the dilemmas and difficulties that must have existed in between. Events are noted, but never analyzed, and the film could have benefitted from a more traditional biographical approach, with longer running time and more studious handling of the subject. Streep, however, gets almost everything right, and while Thatcher’s prime makes for more dynamic scenarios in which the actress delivers a precision impersonation, it is her dotage scenes that Streep delivers some very effective, affecting moments that will last. It’s particularly edifying that an actress in her sixties playing a woman in her eighties can headline a major movie and be rewarded so deservingly.
The Iron Lady is clearly an attempt at a personalized, ‘intimate’ portrayal of Thatcher, but it’s too narrow and lightweight to stand with the great political biographies like Gandhi (1982) or Nixon (1995), which is a shame given that Thatcher is no less a remarkable statesperson. Despite, or perhaps because of, the extreme reaction and opinion Thatcher inspires, the filmmakers have concentrated on the woman more than the premier, and the result is an unchallenging, soft piece that fails to take advantage of an enduringly controversial and fascinating individual.