The Iron Lady
Details: (M), 105 mins, In Cinemas 26 December 2011, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: An intimate portrait of Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), the first and only female Prime Minister of The United Kingdom. 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.
Broad treatment skips finer details of Thatcher's rule.
As Margaret Thatcher, the unyielding British Prime Minister who forcefully remade the country she loved between 1979 and 1990, Meryl Streep delivers a fearsomely accurate portrayal: she has the curt voice undercut by a tinge of playful self-awareness, the curiously wide eyes, and the sweep of hair that framed determined features. At full steam she reduces cabinet ministers to despondent silence and emerges triumphant even when she hasn’t been challenged. As a performance it is deeply impressive, capturing the essence and not just a detailed reflection, but for all there is of Thatcher there’s virtually no Thatcherism.
The debate over what can be done to elevate and illuminate the biopic is endless, but with The Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) and writer Abi Morgan (Shame) have opted to focus on the individual over events. There is a broadly historical narrative to The Iron Lady, but often the incidents come with a repetitive structure: Thatcher tells cabinet or the House of Common how things will be, and the film cuts to archival footage of a riot; it’s hard to tell the striking miners from poll tax protestors.
In a roundabout way that could be the film’s point: that her opponents meant nothing to Thatcher and she barely distinguished one group from the next, let alone considered their often worthy criticisms of her economic rationalism and contrary stances. Instead the focus is the woman left behind when the power departed. Shuffling towards the local shop, the retired Margaret Thatcher, who has slipped her police guard, is frail and alone – she talks to her impertinent husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent), even though he’s been dead for years.
The filmmakers soften Thatcher’s edges and by presenting her on the verge of dotage they want sympathy for her. They see her greatest achievement as surmounting the rigidly male British power structure, and The Iron Lady is a take on Pygmalion (although the IRA never blew up Henry Higgins), with the young Margaret Roberts, terrifically played by Alexandra Roach, having to win over the Conservative party’s privileged rulers to gain entrance to the structure she will eventually conquer. The daughter of a grocer and local mayor (Iain Glen) who shaped her philosophy with his patriotic beliefs, Thatcher must defeat her supposed benefactors before she can take on the world.
Flustered Greek choruses of suited men follow her down corridors, assenting to whatever she says, and in viewing her story through the lens of gender, Lloyd and Morgan never gets to grips with more subtle distinctions such as the lack of female colleagues or promotions and the way Thatcher could play to male expectations when necessary. The film is briskly authored, but in contrasting meetings where Thatcher authorises the sinking of an Argentinean naval vessel during the Falklands War with the lonely widow whose own son can’t be bothered visiting her, they’re essentially depicting a tragic figure.
Lloyd, a respected theatre director late to the cinema, has retained the broad brush strokes she favoured on Mamma Mia! “There will be no appeasement,” Thatcher declares, but the movie isn’t so sure. The Iron Lady gives you a strong sense of an unknown Margaret Thatcher, the Baroness now rarely seen, but the sweep of the narrative generally ignores the historic context and can’t find a way to have her reflect on what is transpiring in the vast unseen world that was answerable to this woman’s decisions. Streep is wonderful as the various incarnations of Thatcher, but it’s unlikely that you’ll have a great deal more insight into her actions by the movie’s end.
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