Margaret Thatcher has been described as everything from a hard line hypocrite and foul demigod to a champion crusader for the British people – even if they sometimes chose to believe otherwise. One fact about ‘the iron lady’ is irrefutable: she is, was and will always be the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century (1979-1990). Throughout the 1980s she ‘ruled Britannia’ with a firm conviction in her own destiny – firmly linking it with that of the country, and with a general distaste for the ‘old gentleman’s club’ of politico muck-racking that dominated the aptly named, House of Commons.
Like most aspects of the bawdy/gaudy ‘80s, Margaret Thatcher was an indomitable, larger than life zeitgeist, who cleverly manipulated popular opinion to become a veritable force of nature. Perhaps she was out to prove a point, exercising her own intensely personal whims on a very public platform. But there is no denying that she altered the slow – but steady – decline of England for the better, even if her methods were sometimes judged as increasingly heavy-handed to downright tyrannical by her harshest critics.
And now comes Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (2011); an utterly free flowing critical examination of the grand dame starring another great lady – this one of the cinema: Meryl Streep, who turns in an extraordinary performance that is undeniably Oscar worthy and, at times, frightfully on point. Streep manages to capture Thatcher’s imperishable pride, her social angst, her moral ambiguity and the concreteness of her convictions without ever lapsing into lampoon or mimicry. It seems incongruous that an entire decade of someone’s life – particularly one as varied and multi-layered as Thatcher’s – could be effectively summed up in less than two hours. But Abi Morgan’s screenplay manages this minor coup with a precision and delicate counterbalance between Thatcher’s political rise and some of the more finely nuanced moments of her private life.
In more recent times it has become quite fashionable to structure such tales from the vantage of a flashback many years removed from the story that is being told, and The Iron Lady is no exception to that rule. Our first glimpse of Margaret Thatcher is not one struck from collective memories of the unconquerable leader, but that of a common frump buying milk at a Pakistani-owned convenience store in Great Britain. It is 2008. Yet, as Thatcher pours herself a glass of milk in her kitchen she muses with husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) about simpler, happier times. It all makes for a most splendid snapshot of retired domesticity. Except that Denis is not really there. You see, he died in 2003. And Thatcher, the impervious perfectionist is forced to grapple with the lingering effects of her dementia.
The central theme explored throughout the rest of the film is of the price one pays for a very public life. Thatcher’s own has been particularly crippling to her declining sense of self. She is portrayed as a sort of decaying relic from another time and mindset; isolated in her home and, more importantly, with her thoughts that increasingly betray her conception of time – past, present and future. Thatcher’s son, Mark (whom we never see in the film) is presumably estranged from his mother and living in South Africa with his wife and children, while daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) rather desperately attempts to salvage some sort of relationship with her mother, even as she must acknowledge her debilitating mental decline.
From here, the film regresses to a series of flashbacks within flashbacks. We see a young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) enamoured by her father, Alfred Roberts (Iain Glen) political speeches. The Roberts family – lower middle class and struggling at that - own a modest grocer’s concession, and much is made of Margaret’s early placement at Oxford University. She meets businessman Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd as a young man) during a Tory party dinner and quickly alienates her peers with strong convictions and theories on the reasons behind Great Britain’s social and financial retrenchment. Denis takes a special interest in Margaret and the two are married. After one failed attempt to enter political life, Margaret becomes Education Secretary. Her struggles to assimilate into the male dominated social structure inside parliament are briefly glossed over before she strikes up a most meaningful friendship with Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) who gradually begins to mold and reshape Thatcher’s public persona into the great lady she will eventually become. Tragically, this transformation is cut short when Irish Nationals plant a bomb inside Airey’s car.
Margaret pursues her voice coaching and public speaking, achieving a sort of notoriety in the press that is at once somewhat flattering, yet snidely condescending. After all, how could a woman ever become Prime Minister? Nevertheless, Margaret achieves the impossible – and it is the first of many hard fought, and equally hard won, battles she faces in her chosen career. Over the misgivings of members of her Cabinet, Thatcher moves ahead with monetarist policies that see a stifling rise in unemployment. We are treated to actual news inserts of the Brixton Riots (1981), Margaret’s decisive moment to retake the Falkland Islands (82), the miner’s strike (84-85), and the bombing of the Grand Hotel (84) that nearly killed the Thatchers during the Conservative Party Conference.
Regrettably, the film’s chronology on these impactful moments in history is wonky at best. Worse for the film’s dramatic arch, Thatcher’s iconic alliance with U.S. President Ronald Reagan - that ultimately spurred both countries on to an economic boom in the mid-1980s - is all but glossed over with a few vintage snippets. The last act of the film shows Thatcher as an overbearing politico who mistreats time honored members of her Cabinet and arguably has grown out of touch and out of step with the times. Her proposal for a ‘Poll Tax’ splits the party and forces her deputy Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) to resign.
This episodic narrative concludes in the present, with Thatcher – the aged and slightly meandering, forgotten figure of politics - packing up Denis belongings. His presence, real and imagined is everywhere and this momentarily confuses and even frightens Margaret, as she races wildly though the house, turning on appliances, the TV and the radio in a vain attempt to drown out the memory of her late husband’s voice. Thatcher’s ever loyal assistant, June (Susan Brown) enters the room to interrupt this insanity with a steadying hand. Denis’ ghost is seen tipping his hat to his wife as he leaves their home – presumably for the last time – with Margaret emphatically begging him to stay. But Denis quietly, and ever so tenderly, articulates for Margaret that she has never truly needed him as a wife ought to a husband.
The Iron Lady is a highly articulate film that strangely loses steam and even interest in its own subject matter about midway through. It is as though director Phyllida Lloyd has suddenly decided for herself that she has become bored with making the movie and has instead opted for a brief ‘travelogue’ through Margaret Thatcher – the highlights. Yet, even in this endeavor the last two thirds of the screenplay seem rather insincere. The tale is not faithfully reproduced with an unbiased view, but with a deliberate slant to associate Margaret Thatcher with more controversy than personal achievement.
At times Thatcher comes across as arrogant and even scurrilous, unrelenting and frankly, quite bossy. Perhaps she was in life, or had to be within her own social circles to survive the quagmire of the men’s club that surrounded – though rarely respected - her. But that should not diminish or exclude the achievements sustained during her time in office. After all, she was Britain’s longest running P.M. If she had been so universally misguided or even hated – as Abi Morgan’s screenplay frequently suggests – it is doubtful her reign in office would have been so prolific or successful.
More disconcerting for this reviewer is the attempt made by the filmmakers to colour the entire movie going experience of Thatcher – the leader – as seen through the eyes of an aged and mentally frail woman who is obviously nearing the final act of her life. Thatcher’s illness is well publicized. But she did not suffer from dementia while in office, even if her pundits would like to otherwise imply. I am not attempting to suggest herein that a more saintly portrayal of the woman would have improved my movie going experience; merely a more honest and well-rounded one.
The glue that keeps the film from degenerating into just another faux bio pick is, of course, Meryl Streep who is never anything less than absolutely marvelous. Streep’s gift to American cinema has always been her chameleon’s skin – her ability to morph into the characters she is playing. Somehow even the shape of her head is different in this film, her facial expressions hauntingly Thatcher-esque, her demeanor and physical bearing uncannily the embodiment of Margaret Thatcher – the woman, the lady, the person, and, the leader.
Never is there a false note in Streep’s performance. Never does she veer into copycatting her subject as a skilled impersonator of famous people might. No, Streep is genuine through and through and that makes all the difference. Even when the narrative is incapable of remaining faithful to its subject, Streep never is anything but truthful in her art and craft of resurrecting Thatcher as she might have been and probably was. In the final analysis, The Iron Lady is compelling because of Streep, and some of the other finely crafted performances scattered throughout. But as a heartfelt biography of Margaret Thatcher, it desperately lags behind the status quo.
Alliance Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray captures the rather washed out ‘appeal’ of Elliot Davis’ cinematography. The image on this 1080p presentation is not razor sharp, but it is in keeping with Davis’ soft focus approach that was a hallmark of the theatrical viewing experience. Colours are de-saturated but very accurately reproduced. Contrast levels appear just a tad less robust than they ought with black levels frequently more gray than solid and dark. Otherwise, there’s really nothing to complain about. The DTS audio is fairly aggressive, especially where Thomas Newman’s bombastic score is concerned. Extras include brief featurettes on the making of the film, the young Thatcher’s life and times, a look a Denis’ role in this very public life, and, a glimpse into Consolata Boyle’s costume design.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)