One of the more polarizing political figures of the 20th century, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, still inspires passionate support or derision some 21 years after she reluctantly stepped away from the office she occupied. It comes as no surprise that Phyllida Lloyd’s biographical film of Thatcher, The Iron Lady, is drawing impassioned criticism, much of it along party lines. While her supporters view it as unflattering and tasteless due to its initial scenes that show the Thatcher of today as a feeble, forgetful woman, those who railed against her object, saying the film doesn’t go far enough in showing the devastating effect her social policies had on the working class and the poor of England.
It says a great deal about what Thatcher still means to the Brits that such a mediocre movie about her can draw such heated responses. I would argue that film biographies are the most difficult of cinematic undertakings. They’re a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. If the intent is to give an overview of the subject’s entire life, the result is often spotty, with many key elements left underdeveloped or overlooked. If the strategy is to focus on one key period of the person’s life as being indicative of their existence, then you run the risk of ignoring important events your audience is expecting to be covered. (See the recent J. Edgar and 2001’s Ali for flawed examples of each form.)
Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan are all in here as they give a truncated version of Thatcher’s life, playing it out as a series of extended memories with the dementia-addled woman communing with her long dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). We see her as a young woman (Alexandra Roach), the daughter of a merchant whose political views are shaped by her conservative father. We witness her early political defeats, her eventual election to Parliament in 1959, her struggles with sexism as a pioneering woman in the boy’s club of English politics and her eventual rise to power as prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Along the way she instituted economic policies that solved the country’s inflation problem but exacerbated the high unemployment rate, aided Ronald Reagan in bringing the Cold War to an end, saw her mettle tested with the Falklands War and stumble in handling relations with Northern Ireland that resulted in an assassination attempt effectively recreated here.
While the film is ably made and many of the historical recreations are done with a wonderful eye to detail, there’s a thumbnail feel to the film that it simply can’t overcome. One event runs into another and rarely do we see how they affect Thatcher as a woman or politician. There’s a cumulative effect to be sure, but only those with previous knowledge of the leader will be able to put it all in proper context. This is a shame as there are many good moments that, had they been expanded upon, would have resulted in some bracing dramatic moments, including her handling of the Falklands conflict. Also the film would have benefited from more scenes in which Thatcher clashed with the commoners who opposed her.
In the title role, Meryl Streep is astounding. At this point in her illustrious career, one would think the actress wouldn’t be able to surprise us anymore. However, she doesn’t merely imitate Thatcher but becomes her. Streep disappears completely. You’re never conscious you’re watching an actress at play; the illusion of watching this woman reflect on her life is a complete success. It is a nuanced, layered performance that ranks as one of Streep’s best. If the film itself had been as complex, Lloyd would have succeeded in delivering a classic.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.