The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady featured image

January 13, 2012
Reviewed by Marc Glassman

The Iron Lady
Phyllida Lloyd, director
Abi Morgan, script
Starring: Meryl Streep (Margaret Thatcher), Jim Broadbent (Denis Thatcher), Alexandra Roach (Young Margaret), Harry Lloyd (Young Denis), Anthony Head (Geoffrey Howe), Richard E. Grant (Michael Heseltine), Paul Bentley (Douglas Hurd), Robin Kermode (John Major), Michael Pennington (Michael Foot)

The buzz
Meryl Streep as the notorious, controversial British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? If I spot you an “o” and “r,” can you spell Oscar?

Interest in England is at a peak with newspapers and televised reports commenting in advance on this intimate portrait of the ever- divisive Mrs. Thatcher.

It’s been noticed already—and will be commented upon by many—that this full-length biopic of the first British female Prime Minister has been written and directed by women. Is this a feminist take on the great Conservative?

The genres
Historical drama; biopic; political thriller; psychological study; romance

The plot
In present day England, an old and confused Margaret Thatcher sneaks past her entourage to buy something at the corner grocers. Back home, in an elegant apartment, she talks to her husband Denis about what she’s doing and thinking.

Slowly you realize that Denis is dead, her entourage consists of caregivers and Margaret, the grocer’s daughter who grew to be Prime Minister, has dementia.

What Thatcher still has is memories—though they’re imperfect and fragmentary. She also has her fighting spirit, which sparks an on-going present day attempt to will herself out of a demented state.

Moving back and forth from present to past, Thatcher’s public life is recounted: the fight against the coal miners and unions in general; the Falklands War—her biggest triumph; privatization of gas, water and electricity; and a move towards reducing hostilities in Northern Ireland.

Far more important for the film’s narrative structure is the tale of her private life. In a series of scenes, the rise of a grocer’s daughter during World War Two and her awakening interest in politics in post-war Britain is told. A key moment occurs when Denis Thatcher, her upper-class supporter and colleague, proposes marriage to her. Played by Alexandra Roach—not Streep—the young Margaret Roberts tells Denis that she’ll marry him only if he understands that she intends to make an impact on the world, not just be a housewife. To which the young Denis replies, “but that’s why I want to marry you.”

In the end, Mrs. Thatcher remains implacable—the Iron Lady but somewhat more vulnerable—still fixated on her memories: her triumphs and tragedies.

The performances
Meryl Streep is a star renowned for the ability to play character roles. Accents, body language, demeanour: all grist for the mill as far as the magnificently accomplished Streep is concerned. So it’s no surprise that she nails Thatcher: her speech, her look, her style.

What makes Streep’s portrayal even more remarkable is that she evokes pathos for this grand woman laid low by age and enfeebling disease. This is an Oscar-worthy performance. (But so is Michelle Williams’ as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn; it’s a tough year for Oscar voters).

Jim Broadbent is a consummate actor; he brings the charming, ineffectual Denis to life.

Alexandra Roach is terrific as the young Margaret.

As for the rest of a cast made up of esteemed British actors: they all acquit themselves well. And are any of us surprised?

The direction
Phyllida Lloyd rose to popular prominence through her creative direction on stage of Mama Mia! She made that film her first—and this is her second.

Though she has few film credentials, Ms. Lloyd is an acclaimed drama (Royal Court Theatre; Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre; Royal National Theatre; productions include Six Degrees of Separation, The Winter’s Tale, Mary Stuart) and opera director (Peter Grimes, Verdi’s Macbeth and A Handmaid’s Tale.)

She not only directed the premiere of Handmaid’s Tale, Lloyd also worked with Margaret Atwood on the Penelopiad.

Given her credentials, it’s obvious that Lloyd is an immense talent. So, in her own way, is Abi Morgan, the scriptwriter on Shame, Brick Lane, Sex Traffic (the precursor of Traffic) and the hot British TV drama The Hour.

Lloyd and Morgan worked hard to make this film come off. And it shows in the intensity brought to bear on scene after scene in The Iron Lady.

The skinny
This will be the Oscar hit of the season, especially if Streep hits the heights and gets one more for her shelf.

Does it work? With la Streep in her full pomp, is glory bound to happen?

My main query is: why raise support for Thatcher now that she’s old and infirm?

I would have preferred a strong, clear-eyed view of The Iron Lady—her successes and failures. Why did Lloyd and Morgan decide to create so much sympathy for the old, delusional PM?

This film is a compromise, neither Leftist nor Rightist. For some, The Iron Lady is a fine portrait of Thatcher. Personally, I think the filmmakers are delusional. Few will genuinely embrace this vulnerable, demented lady. Even Conservatives probably agree with me: give me a film on Thatcher’s politics or give me death.

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