Margaret Thatcher gets the rare honour of a biopic made in her lifetime; and Meryl Streep’s starring role as ‘The Iron Lady’ makes for an entertaining, occasionally moving but flawed film. Part Lear, part Queen Elizabeth, part Iris Murdoch, totally Streep, this is not so much a political movie, more a meditation on power and the loss of same. There’s a nod to feminism, albeit in a general manner, and a kaleidoscopic take on her rise and fall. This film will go down a storm in the States but it could have been a lot better.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan is going through a particularly purple patch. Writer of ‘The Hour’ and ‘Shame’, Morgan’s script sees Thatcher look back on her past from the present as a dementia sufferer. We return to WWII and Alf Roberts influence on his daughter, her meeting with Denis, her time in Heath’s cabinet, rise to the leadership, election as Prime Minister and eventual Götterdämmerung. This is inter-cut with scenes of an elderly, confused woman almost a prisoner in her own home.
The cast is excellent; Streep gives a superb leading performance; a mixture of a Michael Sheen-style impression and in-depth method acting. Thatcher never quite comes across as likeable, but is, at the end, a figure worthy of pity and it’s a tribute to Streep that she imparts so much humanity to the role. Alexandra Roach hits the mark as the younger leader in waiting, moving up the greasy pole, juggling family and career. Jim Broadbent is an English national treasure at this stage, and his Denis Thatcher is a departure from the ‘Private Eye’ ‘Dear Bill’ view of the man, while keeping some of the best/worst well-known characteristics. Olivia Coleman shines as Carol Thatcher and, of the politicians, Richard E Grant captures the Heseltine drive/egotism remarkably well.
For Thatcher-watchers, there are some terrific pen-portraits of early figures influential in her political life and rise to the top. Gordon Reece, one of her key image-makers, is given the prominent role he deserves; he advised her on how and why to lower the pitch of her voice, how to dress, what to say; he, and Tim Bell, were crucial to transforming Thatcher from neophyte Minister to Prime Minister. Geoffrey Howe is a grey as his dead sheep image and John Major is similarly nondescript. Michael Foot gets a couple of short scenes as do John Nott and Al Haig; there’s lots for the political anorak to look out for.
Overall, however, the political focus of the movie is a little disappointing. While the broad principles of Thatcher’s ideology; self-reliance, there ‘being no such thing as society’, English Nationalism, low taxation, are covered, there simply isn’t enough time to explore all these points and give more than a cursory view to each issue. There isn’t a huge amount of depth to the portrait either; apart from some travel over the well-travelled ground of the Thatcher upbringing, we never really get to the root of what drove this woman. While issues such the rights and wrongs of EMF membership are scarcely the stuff of entertaining cinema, there could have been greater attention paid to events over personality. Similarly, try explaining the Westland controversy in a drama and you’ve a huge writing problem on your hands but you could at least reference it. The script is non-committal on the rightness or wrongness Thatcher’s politics.
There is much to like about ‘The Iron Lady’. If you’re old enough to remember when her reign, you’ll know how much she dominated the news-cycle. The British Media is largely right-wing at heart and her legacy there is assured but for anyone on the left, this movie won’t change their opinion. She will be remembered as the most divisive British political figure of the 20th Century.