“The Iron Lady” is an intimate portrait of Margaret Thatcher, the first and only female Prime Minister of The United Kingdom. The movie does not purport to tell a linear, inclusive docudramatic account of Thatcher’s life and times. It’s prismatic. As Thatcher’s daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) helps sort through the late Denis’ belongings, we’re whisked back, in Thatcher’s head, to her teenage years as the daughter of a grocer and alderman. Thatcher’s zigzagging, stop-and-start progress in local and then national politics gets a once-over; the younger Thatcher is played by Alexandra Roach.
Framing Mrs. Thatcher’s story as a series of flashbacks from her contemporary life, the film depicts the once-commanding leader in the midst of senility, contrasting it with her historic rise through the ranks of Britain’s Conservative Party to the post of prime minister.One of the 20th century’s most famous and influential women, Thatcher came from nowhere to smash through barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male dominated world. In the film the central figure is one of the most famous, most controversial living Englishwoman, a reclusive widow now known to be in poor health and not entirely in command of her mental faculties, but who still hovers over all our lives. Virtually everything and everybody in the movie is shown through her distorted vision as her faulty memory calls up her past during a period of 24 hours or so in the past couple of years.
In an early scene in the film, we see her in a small, cluttered convenience store, an image of a decaying Britain. Frail and doddering, she’s given her home security details the slip to walk alone to a store for buying milk and nipped down the street to buy a carton of milk for her husband. While she walks home from the store, Thatcher has a conversation with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), about the price of milk. For all the world, they look like a well-to-do old English couple having breakfast. But as we soon come to realize, Denis is not really there. He has been dead for several years, and Margaret is having a hallucination – one of many, as much of “The Iron Lady” will be taken up with scenes of Margaret either conversing with the impish, imaginary Denis or trying to will him to go away. We’d like him to go away, too, but he just won’t do it.
The octogenarian Thatcher is being visited by her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman), a brisk, lisping, confident presence, both loving and somewhat resentful. She’s come to help her dispose of Denis’s clothes which have been cluttering Margaret’s central London home. The first flashbacks (triggered by the Freudian slip of signing her memoirs “Margaret Roberts”) deal with her teenage life in Grantham, daughter of the thrifty, self-sufficient grocer alderman Roberts. The second set (touched off by confusing a present-day dinner party with a 1950 meeting with the patronising, upper-crust Conservative constituency committee in Dartford) concern her entry into politics and meeting the successful businessman Denis Thatcher, who was to offer her security, enabling her to switch from scientific research to the law and eventually fathering her twins. In these early scenes Thatcher is played convincingly by Alexandra Roach as a gauche, aggressive, lower-middle-class provincial girl. Here we encounter the two key figures in her life: the influential father and the supportive husband. “I’ve always preferred the company of men,” she says (women friends are notably absent), but these are the only two she doesn’t dominate.
At 86, Baroness Thatcher, the woman once simultaneously reviled and revered and described by her daughter as “cast-iron proof” with a “blotting paper” memory, has become a recluse, isolated by growing dementia. In fact, British Prime Minister David Cameron recently denounced the timing of the film, saying it was “insensitive” and could have waited “for another day.”
There’s a sudden switch in the 1970s when the two parts of Meryl Streep‘s altogether remarkable impersonation come together – Thatcher in pathetically touching old age and Thatcher in her political prime as party leader and world stateswoman. It’s at this point that the best sequences occur when her admirer, the Tory MP Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), and her svengali, the TV guru Gordon Reece (Roger Allam), take her in hand.They give her a makeover in The King’s Speech manner, creating the Iron Lady who over the next 15 years will dominate Britain in a familiar divisive way.
Thatcher held office for an unprecedented three terms, bitterly divided Great Britain, and led her nation during the Falklands War. Eventually, Thatcher’s increasing isolation, brought about by her rigidity, singlemindedness, inability to accept advice and contempt for most of her colleagues, brings about a form of madness that foreshadows the Lear-like dementia that infects her dotage.
From her humble beginnings as the proverbial “grocer’s daughter from Grantham,” she began on the lowest rungs of the Conservative Party and never paused in her climb. Her ambition was unlimited, her strategy ruthless, her victims many of the male generation the Conservatives thought they were grooming for power.
Thatcher’s singularity is emphasized, with shots of her overhead, a lone woman in a sea of blue suits, or as the only pair of high heels in a row of black wingtips. Through Meryll Streep’s performance, it’s impossible not to feel for Thatcher in those early years, addressing the Commons and enduring the condescension of her male colleagues in the opposition party. Streep gets every external detail of Thatcher’s expression and movement and then, through some profound gift of intuition, she gets everything else, the thoughts, the inner life, the strengths and limitations, even the unconscious motivations of the character.
What the movie cannot disguise, almost to the point of making one wonder why the filmmakers even bothered, is a certain left-wing squeamishness about a right-wing subject. Streep creates an uncanny impersonation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but in this film she’s all dressed up with nowhere to go. Screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd take on one of the most extraordinary women of the last century, but they can find nothing good to say about her besides that she was tough, and a woman, and that it’s too bad she is suffering from dementia.
Mrs. Thatcher remains a polarizing figure, worshipped by the right and reviled by the left. Here, her fight against left-wing orthodoxy is depicted as ferocious and honorable, with minimal time devoted to criticisms. The political color of the film is just enough to give viewers (who may not be familiar with Thatcher’s 1979-1990 tenure) insight into Britain in the 1980s. It touches upon her battle with trade unions at the time and embellishes her bond with Ronald Reagan, who was a perfect match for her political ideologies. When a doctor asks the aging Thatcher (played with brilliant slyness and sly brilliance by Meryl Streep) how she is feeling, he is answered with an impromptu lecture on the over-emotionalism of modern culture and a stout defense of the supreme importance of thinking. Ideas are what matter, she insists, and I suspect that a great many people of various ages and political inclinations would agree.
The Iron Lady
- Production year: 2011
- Country: UK
- Runtime: 104 mins
- Directors: Phyllida Lloyd
- Cast: Alexandra Roach, Anthony Head, Harry Lloyd, Jim Broadbent, Meryl Streep, Olivia Coleman, Olivia Colman, Richard E Grant, Roger Allam