A frail, old Baroness Thatcher (Meryl Streep) pays for a pint of milk in a typical London corner shop, before asking the shopkeeper what the price of a pint of nice-cold-ice-cold actually comes to these days. To many viewers this will be nothing more than an innocuous, self-contained introductory scene, but to others a degree of irony will be appreciated. To many above a certain age Margaret Thatcher became synonymous with the drink, earning the long-standing nickname ‘The Milk Snatcher’ after her government stopped the provision of free milk for the over 7’s in schools in order to meet election pledges on tax.
A further irony is that, for much of Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic The Iron Lady, Thatcher is anything but iron; the film depicts her in her later years: as a frail, brittle old woman who is suffering from the onset of dementia. In this film she is pretty much under house arrest, wandering from room to room while secretaries and assistants schedule the occasional public appearance. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Coleman) visits, but the former Prime Minister is focused more on the past than the present.
As a portrayal of dementia it’s actually disappointingly light; Thatcher enjoys whimsical ‘visits’ from her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, who mistakenly plays Mr Thatcher as a kind of domestically-inept merry prankster) and there are plenty of other signifiers of her mental illness, but the film shies away from depicting the utter despair and frustration that sufferers often experience as a result of their confusion, and it isn’t particularly concerned with the mental strain on other family members either (while Carol appears flustered, her son Mark is only mentioned in passing).
Though Margaret Thatcher and the policies of her Conservative government completely polarized opinion in the UK, the one thing pretty much everyone can agree on is that she was, while in power, a person of strong will. The trick of The Iron Lady is to contrast the old, suffering Thatcher with the rise of the politician through a series of flashbacks, yet while this is interesting to a point it’s something the film repeats and repeats with ultimately unsatisfactory results. (Nothing encapsulates the divisive nature of this politician more than her funeral, earlier in 2013. The streets were filled with supporters who admired her and also many, many protesters who still remain bitter about her tenure today. In some UK towns they held a minute’s silence and in others they burned effigies that hung from hastily-erected gallows.)
The Iron Lady covers Thatcher’s fairly ordinary beginnings as a grocer’s daughter (father Alfred Roberts is played by Iain Glen, who currently appears as Jorah Mormont in Game Of Thrones, and the younger Margaret is played by Alexandra Roach), and follows her rise within the political world – initially as an MP in the 1950s and 1960s, then as Education and Science Secretary, opposition party leader, and finally Britain’s first female Prime Minister. She then looks back on several key events of the 1980s, such as the Brighton hotel bombings and the long-running terrorism campaign by the IRA, the miner’s strike, the Falklands War with Argentina, the re-development of London’s docklands, the Brixton riots, her friendship with Ronald Reagan, the introduction of the Poll Tax and the eventual loss of support from her cabinet that led directly to her loss of power.
It’s such a huge amount of material to incorporate into a standard running time that it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that not a bit of it is being explored to a satisfactory extent. Given the magnitude of some of these events in real life and their importance to Britain (and, in some respects, to the rest of the world) in the 1980s you could make an entire film that just deals with, for example, the IRA’s campaign or even the rise (or political demise) of Margaret Thatcher (in fact an entire film has already been made about the re-development of London’s docklands: The Long Good Friday.). The Falklands War is dealt with in a couple of scenes that are bookended by stock footage of military skirmishes and troops returning home to celebrating crowds. One scene shows the decision being made to sink the Argentinian ship the ARA General Belgrano in 1982, which was attacked by the British army as it moved into an exclusion zone. Over a thousand soldiers died, and the actions of the government and the army came under heavy scrutiny afterwards, but with no framework provided here the scene is drenched in a kind of dramatic militaristic triumphalism that seems ill suited to the actual event depicted. “Sink it!”, Thatcher orders with relish.
Liberal blood will boil even more during another scene in which the victorious Thatcher chastises Labour leader Michael Foot for his anti-war stance in the House of Commons. In reality, Foot gave his backing to Thatcher when the government expressed a desire to send a task force to the islands, something which the then Prime Minister appreciated considerably, despite their many battles over the years.
What excuses Lloyd is the fact that her film filters all of these events through Thatcher’s own eyes, and it is worth saying again that these are the eyes of a lady who is suffering from early signs of dementia in her mid-80s. She is an unreliable witness, and that just about explains certain other inaccuracies. There are no other female MPs seen in the House of Commons, to enhance the idea of this woman breaking through the glass ceiling of Parliament, which is patently ridiculous. Not only that, for dramatic purposes she is seen just yards away from the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) as he is killed by a car bomb, despite the fact that in real life she was carrying out official duties elsewhere at the time. Those who recall Margaret Thatcher’s indifference towards Nelson Mandela may also raise an eyebrow to a scene that shows her happily dancing with the South African leader, too. Even though an artistic reason for it has been given, the lack of accuracy ultimately takes credibility away from the film.
That all said, some of the flashback scenes are good. One that stands out in particular is the cabinet meeting where Thatcher gives her deputy Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) a dressing down in front of senior ministers, all watched by the opportunistic Michael Heseltine (an underused Richard E. Grant), who would later challenge for the party leadership. Unfortunately it only lasts for a couple of minutes, such is the amount of material that the director and the writer Abi Morgan (Shame) attempt to cram in. The film moves far too quickly at times, and doesn’t allow enough time for such events to really bed in. The relinquishing of power becomes just one more flashback scene among many
Meryl Streep received her 17th nomination and won her third Oscar for her performance as Thatcher, and it is certainly a worthy win considering how accurate a portrayal of the former Prime Minister this is. (This truly is an incredible record of achievement, given that the first of these was for The Deer Hunter, a film which only came out 35 years ago.) Her acting, complete with nuanced ticks and facial expressions that say as much as any dramatic monologue, goes beyond just mere impersonation (though, that said, if impersonating such a well-known figure so successfully isn’t worthy of an Oscar win on its own, then what is?). The meticulous method actor to a tee, Streep certainly appears to ‘inhabit’ the character, particularly in her older, mentally-troubled state, which is no mean achievement when you consider that most of the available footage of Thatcher will be of those earlier years as a political heavyweight. The actress studied archive footage of Thatcher for months, and spoke to many of her old friends and foes to enhance her insight. It is a memorable turn, though perhaps not flawless, and a sizeable make-up crew must also be mentioned for their excellent work.
Streep brings a degree of warmth and frailty to a public figure that was resolutely cold, overbearing and tough, which was perhaps a necessary thing to show for the later out-of-office years, but she doesn’t quite feel different enough in the flashback scenes. The public Thatcher that so many people remember was harder, more dogmatic and more imposing than the one Streep has created here; this Thatcher is slightly unsure of herself, with a degree of self-doubt depicted on screen that the real Iron Lady would never publicly show. But hey, it’s an interpretation, and I’m certainly not in a position of authority to suggest that Meryl Streep of all people should have gone about it differently.
This warm, disappointingly uncritical portrait of Margaret Thatcher is a fairly straightforward biopic, the latest in a long number that simply follows the template set down in Citizen Kane. Much of it will be tough viewing for viewers of a certain political persuasion, and overall it feels like a distillation, a glimpse of only one side of the politician’s public life. That side is the same one that helped the ex-Prime Minister to gain popularity in the USA (which makes it odd that her relationship with political soulmate Ronald Reagan is largely glossed over). Perhaps this is part of the reason for the film’s financial success in the United States and in other countries.
Much reading between the lines is required for a fuller picture, and that won’t be easy for many non-UK viewers who are unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of 1980s British politics to do. As a result The Iron Lady feels incomplete and lop-sided. Despite an excellent central performance, and some other well-cast supporting roles (Coleman and, briefly, Glen and Head), it fails to make good use of some other supporting cast members, and Jim Broadbent’s usual high standards drop with a strangely wacky, impish portrayal of Denis Thatcher. The film is mediocre, but contains a performance from Meryl Streep that is far from ordinary; unfortunately there is a failure to truly capitalize on Streep’s work.
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
Written by: Abi Morgan
Starring: Meryl Streep, Olivia Coleman, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach
Running Time: 104 Minutes