The Iron Lady is a biopic about Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the first Western female country head, the longest reigning British Prime Minister in the 20th century and a political and historical figure who polarises opinion to this day. It is directed by Phyllidia Lloyd (director of global smash hit Mamma Mia) and stars Meryl Streep in the lead role.
Margaret Thatcher (Streep), the daughter of a grocer who rose to prominence in British politics in the 1970s is suffering from dementia in the modern day. While being convinced by her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) to throw out her dead husband Denis’ (Jim Broadbent) clothes she reminisces about the key moments in her political and personal life in the form of flashbacks. From her first election failure to her rise within the Conservative Party to leader and latterly Prime Minister, The Iron Lady explores the woman behind the controversial icon.
Let me begin with the positives. Meryl Streep as the Iron Lady is superb as you would expect and far from being a caricature of Thatcher, she instills in the character a sense of strong-willed sensitivity that helped the real Lady get elected numerous times. Jim Broadbent and Olivia Colman are both also excellent in their respective roles, walking the line between reality and film fantasy without being too comic or overbearing. They support the master turn of one of the most successful female actors of all time. It is in the strength of Streep’s performance, however that the problems with the film begin to surface.
The Iron Lady’s framing device of the modern day is a neat idea to begin with, but constantly dragging the audience away from the meaty subject matter is distracting and frustrating in equal measure. This causes any real flow in the narrative to disappear and becomes the first major problem. The second is more worrying. When you have a subject as controversial as Lady Thatcher to play with, there must have been a temptation to fall on one side or the other. She is seen as either a tough-as-nails political whirlwind who shaped Great Britain into the prosperous nation it became, or she’s a warmongering, ambitious and heartless leader who tore the country apart with constant cuts and over-the-top taxation on the poor. Whatever your opinion, it’ll likely be strong and the film never really lays its hat on either side.
Too scared to alienate one side or the other, it succeeds only in frustrating everyone. The key moments of her political reign are all in there, but they are treated as short tidbits of historical curiosity rather than the life-changing events they actually were. The Iron Lady instead focuses on the character of Margaret Thatcher, but does it in a fluffy, popcorn style reminiscent of My Week with Marilyn. It never takes a chance by putting itself out there and so you’re left with a bit of damp squib. Considering the subject of the biopic was a strong-willed juggernaut in British politics, she is treated as simply a woman overcoming adversity. It’s a story that we’ve seen hundreds of times before, by better film-makers and does a disservice to the explosive material on hand.
It is saved from utter trash by the stellar performances within, but even their quality cannot stop the eventual loss of the audience. It is epitomized by one scene in the doctor’s surgery, when she lambastes the physician for asking how she ‘feels.’ The speech is delivered with careless aplomb by Streep, ever over-shadowing the whole film with effortless class. This scene leaves us wondering why the film spends the majority of its running time worrying about how we ‘feel’ rather than doing what the figure of Lady Thatcher suggests and challenging what we ‘think.’