Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) now in her eighties is struggling with dementia and has difficulty distinguishing the past from the present. As she potters around her home she tries to place herself but continues to struggle with the reality that her husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent) has passed away. As Thatcher attempts to come to terms with her loss she slips back into the past, remembering her lower middle-class youth and subsequent rise to becoming the world’s most powerful woman. With Dennis by her side she finds it difficult to let go of the past and realise that she no longer has the power she once had. As an ageing woman she realises that she has virtually no power at all, not even over her own life.
I have really mixed feelings about The Iron Lady. On the one hand it features a career defining performance from someone who is already one of the most distinguished actresses in history but on the other hand it is a biopic about one of the most divisive people in recent history that somehow manages to treat a neutral line. There is surely no one in Britain who has neutral feelings towards the former Prime Minister. People either love her or loathe her yet the film appears to brush over both the best and worst of her character and time in office, leaving a fairly mundane story in its wake.
Rather than concentrate on Thatcher the MP or Thatcher the PM the film instead spends around half its runtime with Thatcher the frail old woman with dementia. I have a problem with this as it almost makes a hero out of the woman or at least begs for the audience’s sympathy. Indeed I felt sorry for the character at times despite my hatred towards her, her Party and her politics. My girlfriend went as far as to shed a tear for the barmy old witch. By concentrating much of the plot on her later years it feels like the film is trying to give her a free pass for what came before, during her political life. My girlfriend and I watched the film for two different reasons. She, a nurse watched for her interest in mental health whereas I, a politics graduate watched for the politics. She got a lot more out of the film than I did.
The film begins with Thatcher’s humble beginnings in Lincolnshire where she was the daughter of a grocer who became mayor of Grantham. It is obvious she idolises her father, has few friends and has a distant relationship with her mother but none of this is explored in any detail. We then see Thatcher fight for respect in the male dominated world of Westminster politics and this becomes a constant theme. To be honest, despite my hatred of her politics, her fight as a woman to be heard and respected is something which I admire. I just wish she hadn’t ruined it for every other woman who might want to try. Another thing that is made obvious is her love for Dennis and his love of her. That’s what makes his death and her inability to reconcile with it even more painful to watch.
Because Thatcher’s life was so full of interesting episodes there is little time to fit it all in. A lot of important areas and policies are overlooked or barely mentioned. The mass strikes of the 70s are there but barely and the same goes for the riots of the 80s. The Poll Tax gets a mention but its impact on her demise feels left out. The Falklands Conflict is something which is given time and it feels well handled but her time as Education Secretary is almost ignored and feels like a hurdle that the film must cross before it can get to the juicy bits of her Premiership. It just feels like there is far too much to fit in a two hour biopic and instead of trying it might have been better for the filmmakers to just concentrate on a small portion of her life rather than try to jam it all in and miss bits out. Something that I did enjoy seeing was the archive footage of Britain in the 1980s. It’s shocking really to look back and see how violent the strikes were and what chaos was caused. As someone who was born in 1980s Britain I have no actual recollection of these events so it’s interesting to see what the country was like at the time of my birth. I’m glad I was born when I was and not before as the 80s looked rough! It’s the policies of Thatcher’s Government though which caused the strikes and riots and it is this which is glossed over. A forgotten character is John Major who isn’t mentioned or referred to once.
As I mentioned already, Meryl Streep’s performance is mind blowing. Although I don’t think her Thatcher was spot on, you never for one moment think you’re watching Meryl Streep. She is fully deserving of her Oscar, BAFTA and numerous other awards. Her little ticks and movements as the older Thatcher are especially excellent but her strong and powerful performance on the whole is incredible. Jim Broadbent is also marvellous in what must have been a tricky role. As he is usually playing a man who is dead he has only Streep to bounce off or react to but plays the husband really well. He provides quite a bit of warmth and humour too. Alexandra Roach is great as the youthful Thatcher and Olivia Coleman is also good as Carol, under huge teeth and prosthetic nose. Richard E. Grant plays Michael Heseltine as a kind of Bond Villain but is fun to watch and John Sessions is a good Edward Heath.
Overall The Iron Lady isn’t a great film but it is made a whole lot better by a towering Meryl Streep performance. It falls down in its inability to take sides and instead of towing the party line or chanting from the picket line it feels like a soppy Lib Dem, scared to move one way or the other. As a study of dementia it is successful and it can be seen as a metaphor for the lack of power in old age but as a political biopic it is weak.