Margaret Thatcher may be a controversial figure in political circles but The Iron Lady, a film that proposes to give us the story behind the dragon lady front she’s projected throughout her career, is anything but.
The story follows the life of Thatcher (Meryl Streep), from her early years as the daughter of a small-town grocer who rose to mayor to Margaret’s own rise to become the first female party leader and eventual British Prime Minister.
We see a young Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) get admitted to Oxford where she develops a passion for politics and meets Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd) who proposes on the night Margaret loses her first election. She agrees to marry him with the understanding that she will not be a doting wife or mother (“I cannot die washing up a teacup.”), which as it turns out, is exactly why Denis loves her.
As Margaret (now played by Streep) begins to become successful, she clings to her belief that thoughts and ideas are more valuable that feelings, which may be a welcome stance in politics but is less welcome at home as Denis (now played by Jim Broadbent) and their twins valiantly suffer Margaret’s near constant absence from their daily lives.
Margaret’s meteoric rise in power is seen alongside glimpses of the turmoil that gripped Britain at the time as well as brief explanations of her conservative policies and the furor they caused both in parliament and in the streets.
The plot points, that play out almost like a highlight reel of Thatcher’s life (similar to those long-winded videos they run before handing out a lifetime achievement award), are all scattered amongst the film’s central framework which depicts Thatcher’s present state as an aged woman suffering from dementia.
It’s an interesting choice for a biopic like this. Seeing a remarkable woman like Thatcher mentally cut down by a very routine disease is a great contrast to the scenes depicting a young Margaret’s quick wit and fiery personality dominating roomfuls of condescending older men.
Unfortunately, the sometimes clever dramatic device is stretched beyond its limit. On more than one occasion the film to veers into surrealism, misguidedly preferring to focus on Margaret’s conversations with a long-dead Denis while important points in her life and career are glossed over.
And that’s the film’s chief problem: the script, by Shame screenwriter Abi Morgan, attempts to pack way too much into the less than two-hour running time. Nothing about Thatcher’s dynamic life is examined or analyzed, little is illuminated, and because the flashbacks are seen from her befuddled perspective there is no offsetting force to get to the bottom of Thatcher’s moral or political views or even help to understand what it is that drives her.
What we do get is a study of what happens when someone ages: the sobering realization that power eventually fades, doubts begin to creep in, and that disappointment and loss happens to everyone. It’s a bold way to approach the subject matter, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun or all that enthralling to watch.
Thankfully, Streep turns in a reliably stunning performance that’s breathtaking in its detail and nuance. She captures Thatcher’s every subtle gesture and vocal inflection, from middle age to octogenarian; it’s just too bad that her phenomenal performance only serves to point out the film’s narrative failings.
What Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) have essentially done is to take one of the most extraordinary (and hated) women of the last century, and make a movie that has nothing to say about her except that she’s a woman, who was once formidable and is now losing her mind.
As it stands, The Iron Lady isn’t doing any favours for history, feminism or at the very least fans of biopics, but it is a clear victory for Streep. It’s just too bad that the film doesn’t do her spot-on (and possibly soon-to-be award-winning) performance any justice.