Editor’s Note: This if the first review for Anglotopia’s new staff Brit movie reviewer – James Bartlett – a British Expat living in LA.
Period dramas and classic novel adaptations aside, in many ways this is perhaps the most British movie released for many years, as it is a biopic of Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister from 1979-1990 and a figure who not only became world famous as a no-nonsense politician and leader, but as a woman broke countless glass ceilings on her determined rise to the top.
Now frail and well into her late 80s, Thatcher herself is rarely seen in public these days and her reign is not looked back on with much fondness. It could be that history will be a fairer judge, and this movie attempts to look at Thatcher the person, as well as Thatcher the public figure.
The story begins as an elderly Thatcher (Meryl Streep) has breakfast with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), though it’s quickly clear that he is a figment of her imagination, and that she’s now seemingly disappearing into dementia, with long-dead Denis as a regular companion as she recalls moments from her past.
These include her young days as a grocer’s daughter with a father who was strong Conservative values; hard work, protecting business and minimal Government assistance – it’s no surprise that she and Reagan shared such a bond later. As a young Margaret Roberts though (played by Alexandra Roach), she entered a world of sexism and smoky rooms – yet Denis was one of the few who admired her spirit and respected her degree from Oxford.
Switching continually between the hazy present and the rose-colored past, we see Thatcher become head of her political party and then, in a ground-breaking historical moment, the first female Prime Minster. Over the following years she battles against the Unions and strikes, refuses to deal with terrorists, is bombed by the IRA, makes huge public cuts and introduces unpopular taxes – but also wins a war in the Falkland Islands and ushers in years of prosperity.
All things must come to an end though, and a leadership challenge sees her resignation and obscurity, regarded as a heartless relic in this modern age. Her flighty daughter Carol (Olivia Coleman) struggles to help, but is always second to Mark, the Thatcher’s son who always makes excuses to come and visit. It’s only Denis – a lost fantasy – who keeps her from losing her fast intelligence and strong opinions, and she knows even he will have to leave.
As awards season has proved, Streep – as ever – is marvelous as Thatcher in middle/late age, while Broadbent shows that Denis was always quick with a joke and an encouraging word. Streep captures Thatcher well, though – as someone who grew up in that era in England – never quite makes it; perhaps that would have been too much of an impression.
Part of that is due to the script, which barely rises above simplistic, movie-of-the-week stuff that lacks any real depth or bit; thank goodness it was Streep playing the part. American audiences are unlikely to be able to understand what is happening with regards to the historical elements either (Reagan gets a second of footage), and though perhaps that’s why they’re represented with vague archive footage, director Law – so successful directing Streep in “Mamma Mia” – adds little but safe clichés.
A movie like this about such a controversial and famous person needs to be packed full of drama and conflict, and here it’s too focused on an elderly Thatcher hallucinating her ghost Denis. It’s a tactic that allows Streep to show all her talents, but veers too closely to a character study of an old person remembering her past – and like it or not, Thatcher was more than any person, though you would hardly know it from this movie.
THE IRON LADY
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Duration: 105 mins
Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Olivia Colman
Score: 2½ stars out of 5