Brit Movies: The Iron Lady Review from an American Perspective

Making a biopic about Margaret Thatcher is not an easy thing to do. She’s not a sparkling conversationalist, she’s not overly witty, and she’s not electric in personality. However she is one of the most significant women of the last century and remains England’s first and only female Prime Minister. She is a woman who, while in office,  caused as much controversy as she gained accolades.

Thatcher is the subject of a new biopic, ‘The Iron Lady.’ In the film Meryl Streep plays Thatcher in her older years with Alexandra Roach portraying her in her formative years. Jim Broadbent co-stars as Denis Thatcher. Richard E. Grant and Anthony Head also appear in the film.

Encapsulating the entire life of someone as significant as Ms. Thatcher is no easy task. She is a daunting figure who even today casts a shadow over the office of Prime Minister. Nonetheless this is what ‘The Iron Lady’ sets out to do. Using flashbacks the movie establishes early on that Ms.Thatcher was a potent political leader who came from nowhere to smash through barriers of gender and class to stand side by side with other leaders in a male dominated world.

History shows us that Margaret Thatcher was a woman who, when she set out to do something, got it done. Her Achilles heel however that was she often didn’t play well with others. As she rose to power in the Conservative Party she stepped on a lot of egos and spewed a lot of venom at some of the most respected people in Britain. Streep brings this out in her performance with rich detail, upending tranquil scenes with sudden bursts of rage and anger. She also does a magnificent job of bringing the inner turmoil that Maggie suffered all her political life; being a woman in a man’s game.

In fact it is this that haunts Thatcher and makes he lust for power so intense. As Thatcher, Streep perfectly mimics her voice, mannerisms and vocal pitch. It is a striking proposition to play her and Streep undertakes this fearlessly.

Alexandra Roach has it somewhat easier. Her younger Thatcher, although fighting early on for a political seat, is far more endearing and naive. The film’s few tender moments come when she and a younger Denis (Harry Lloyd) meet, court and fall in love.  Roach sets the groundwork for what is to come and allows Streep to roam free in the role later on. Thatcher’s early years in politics were not easy and Roach’s performance reflects her ambition, drive and determination to be seen as more than a grocer’s daughter. She too has taken a dauntless role and made it her own.

Broadbent is superb. He gives the film a breath of air when things get intense. He also holds his own with Streep onscreen as she hustles and bustles boisterously from crisis to crisis. Broadbent, although appearing mostly as an illusion of Thatcher’s dementia throughout most of the film, gives Denis a life, albeit one that is subservient to his wife’s insatiable desire for adoration and power.

Olivia Colman plays Carol Thatcher, Maggie’s daughter who watches helplessly as her mother moves from the worlds of the past and present without any differentiation. It’s not easy being the daughter of one of the most controversial figures in the world and Colman brings this out in the role. She brings a sense of angst as a daughter caring for a mother who is in mourning and suffering from dementia.

The film is set over three days in Thatcher’s life following the death of her husband. Over this period Lady Thatcher, suffering from dementia, recalls her life. It is not obvious at first, but her dementia is profound. She struggles to control herself and oftentimes finds herself speaking to her dead husband. Flashbacks and archival footage tell the story of her ascension and decline from power as well as her life out of office. These flashbacks chronicle her rise from obscurity to her rise through the House of Commons and eventual leadership of The Conservative Party. This is where Streep really takes the reigns of the role and runs with it. As Thatcher becomes PM and leads Britain into the Falklands War she intensifies her performance. She perfectly nails Thatcher’s cold ambivalence to labor strikes, youth protests and the antiwar movement.

Streep skillfully recreates the cold and calculating Thatcher that got things done her way and balances that with a woman, who late in life, struggles with getting a grip on reality and being an ordinary citizen. This careful balancing act enables her to bring a sense of tragic melancholy to the elderly Thatcher who clearly remains bitter, angry and lost after leaving office.

During Thatcher’s rule she faced several crisis situations. The UK’s youth culture and union workers protested and criticized her ever move. The riots they caused were profoundly demonstrative in illustrating how divided she often made her nation’s citizens over her policies. As Prime Minister she was not always popular. She was one of the most controversial leaders of the 1980s who oversaw a period of economic malaise, went toe to toe with the IRA, and went to war over the Falklands. She also  staunchly supported American interests in the Cold War by allying Britain closely with Ronald Reagen’s United States, another move that enraged her colleagues and most vocal opponents.

When Meryl Streep takes a part she inhabits every fiber of that character. Here she completely transforms herself into Ms. Thatcher. The tone, inflections and mannerisms are pitch perfect and thus the audience completely forgets they are watching an actress.  Thatcher is not an easy person to like and Streep gets it right by not trying to make more out of her then she is. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that Thatcher is often very cold and domineering . Yet her version of the PM is tinged with a sense of loss over the death of her husband and frustration over how she left office.

Although The Iron Lady is one of Streep’s triumphs as an actress, the film itself  misses its mark. The pacing is off and the audience is left to wonder somewhat as they attempt to discern what Maggie perceives as real or imaginary. The  ensemble is terrific but suffers from a script that drags a bit in places as it struggles to make Thatcher interesting and compelling. The fact is that  it is hard to make one of the world’s most unlikable political figures interesting to a wide audience.

Director Phyllida Lloyd
 adeptly chronicles her life and political rise by, at times, presenting the film like a stage production with closed in sets, tight dialogue and powerful acting. By staging the film in this way she manages to make this daughter of a shop owner watchable. It also creates a natural spatial tension that enhances the scenes where Thatcher is at combat with her rivals. Lloyd also takes advantage of some great locales for filming. Being able to film inside some of the most powerful places in the British government lends a lot to the production. It is a cinematic treat. The costumes and sets are also great.

She also knows enough to let Streep go out on her own and inhibit the character without interference. With Roach she lets a young actress find her way with the part, resulting in a breakthrough performance.

‘The Iron Lady’ is a film held together by Meryl Streep. The supporting cast is also quite good, however there is something flat about the film that makes it difficult to connect with. It could be that even on screen Thatcher is not easy to warm up to. Another problem is that this movie is over ambitious in trying to deliver a complete picture of someone as complex as Margaret Thatcher. The film is unapologetic of her flaws and characteristics and doesn’t try to rewrite history. Nonetheless it somehow misses  capturing her many complexities which is probably impossible to do in a feature film.

This evasive, all pervading problem of Thatcher’s unlikability is what makes ‘The Iron Lady’ a good film but not a great one. It is a very good film that has so much more potential to be a great one. Maybe the film suffered from Thatcher’s problem of not knowing when to hold back and ease up. Still, despite this, it is worth seeing.

‘The Iron Lady’ is a must see for fans of British politics, popular culture and history. Sadly many people today know little of the discord she brought to her nation’s youth culture or just how close she came to plunging England deeper into the murky depths of The Cold War. She was controversial, powerful. resourceful and resolute. She moved Britain from austerity into a new era of nationalism while restoring it as a world power. ‘The Iron Lady’ affords Anglophiles the opportunity to familiarize themselves with one of Britain’s most polarizing personalities while watching an amazing actress, Meryl Streep, make the part completely her own.

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  1. avatarTyrio Lamb says

    This critic understands the focus and point of this movie..

    It is not a biopic…but more of a fictionalized current state of mind of the former Prime Minister but using facts about her life in flashback sequences…

    I enjoyed watching the movie…it was not great but entertaining to watch especially the superb acting of Meryl Streep…