In the cinematic pantheon, there are supporting actresses, actresses in leading roles, and actresses who reliably receive copious nominations. Then there are figures like Meryl Streep who evade mere categorization. Streep most recently appears in the role of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the ambitious production, “The Iron Lady”. Streep dazzles in this biographical picture about the controversial and strong woman, but her on-screen presence is ultimately unable to make up for the shortcomings of an otherwise mediocre movie.
The film tells the story of Britain’s first female prime minister, who rose from humble beginnings as a grocer’s daughter to serve three terms as leader of the Conservative Party, from 1979 to 1990. Wary of what she believed might be the beginning of Britain’s decline, Thatcher imposed policies that privatized national firms, removed government regulations on businesses, and struck an unyielding stance against the Soviet Union.
This historical narrative is introduced through a series of flashbacks that Thatcher has as an older woman in retirement. Suffering from dementia, screenwriter Abi Morgan’s Thatcher is confined to her home with the exception of a few token public appearances. When encouraged to clean out the closet of her late husband, played by Jim Broadbent, she begins to hallucinate that he is alive and present. She sleeps little, drinks too much liquor, and pores over family videos of her children from when they were young. Morgan has taken on the challenging task of turning a historical account whose conclusion is already known into an interesting work of art—with mixed results. A sense of disorientation and chaos pervades the film, representing Thatcher’s encroaching loss of cognitive ability. However, this sense of confusion ultimately detracts from the focus of the film as it adds to the already complicated meshing of Thatcher’s home and political life.
Through a series of short scenes, we watch as the young Margaret (Alexandra Roach), takes her first forays into politics and tells her future husband (Harry Lloyd), that she will “never be one of those women...who stay silent and pretty on the arm of her husband or remote and alone in the kitchen doing the washing up for that matter. One’s life must matter. I cannot die washing up a tea cup.” This determination, according to the film, is what carried Thatcher into a high position of power, overcoming snide criticism from onlookers about her lower class origins and her sex.
Thatcher’s fortitude at times turns dictatorial; she offends and tyrannizes her political advisors. Her decision to engage Britain in a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands is portrayed as a function of her desire for validation, a dubious historical conclusion. Thatcher tells American General Alexander Haig (Matthew Marsh) that she has “done battle every single day of [her] life, and many men have underestimated [her] before. This lot seem bound to do the same, but they will rue the day.” At home she strains her relationship with her husband Denis and their children, and it is Thatcher’s daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) who most clearly comes off as a sympathetic figure in the movie as she tends to an ailing but demanding mother.
As the movie cuts from reality to memory to hallucination, Streep effectively portrays Thatcher in her many roles, whether delivering political speeches, defending herself against the opposition party at Prime Minister’s Questions, or shuffling along the route back home after evading the watchful gaze of her caretakers to buy milk. Unsurprisingly, Streep’s performance has earned her a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actress.
However, while it has much in common with “The Queen,” another film depicting a strong woman in a public position, “The Iron Lady” lacks the cogency and emotional resonance of its much-acclaimed antecedent. A critical shortcoming of “The Iron Lady” is that it wavers between focusing on Thatcher’s political life and her personal relationships, and in the end its coverage of both rings hollow due to time constraints. There is not quite enough exposition of her policies as prime minister to give uninformed viewers a grasp of her political accomplishments and acts, nor enough portrayal of her interactions with her children and husband to get a clear sense of their relationships.
Rather than try to include all aspects of Thatcher’s life, the filmmakers should have heeded a piece of advice that the former minister is famous for giving: “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.”
—Staff writer Ola Topczewska can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.