The Iron Lady
From the very moment it was announced that Phyllida Lloyd, director of Mamma Mia, was set to direct a biopic of one of the most controversial Prime Ministers of the 20th Century, it was going to be problematic. “Will it glorify Margaret Thatcher?” wondered some of The Iron Lady. “Will Maggie suddenly burst into a rendition of ‘Money Money Money’ as she introduces poll tax?” worried others. Then Meryl Streep, a (whisper it) American came on board and the anxious murmurs became terrified screams.
There was certainly no need for concern over the casting of Streep though- she pulls off a performance that goes far beyond flawless impersonation. At the start of the film, Streep portrays an aged Thatcher, haunted by dementia and visions of her dead husband Denis (played amicably if a little caricatured by Jim Broadbent). As usual with Streep, all her other Academy Award worthy roles are forgotten from the moment she first appears. Not because they were not worth remembering, but because for the duration of the film she is, and only ever was, Margaret Thatcher. On an unauthorised stumble to the shops, which provokes a frenzy of hushed arguments over who let her out of the house, she asks, astonished, “How much for the milk?”. Viewers of a certain age can’t miss the reference here to the decision of “Thatcher, Thatcher Milk Snatcher” to end free milk in schools. Those hoping this subtle dig was a precedent for more criticism, however, will have been sorely disappointed.
As Thatcher’s daughter Carol, played impeccably by Olivia Colman, tries to persuade her to clear out Denis’s wardrobe, a series of flashbacks (some contrived, some touching) comprise the basis of the film’s structure. We follow Thatcher’s rise to power from Grocer’s daughter to Prime Minister- the young pre-married Margaret Roberts portrayed with great competence by Alexandra Roach. We see her transition from disrespected aspiring politician to (as Streep takes over) formidable Prime Minister quoting Francis of Assisi on the steps of 10 Downing Street. What follows though, is a play by play of historically important events that reads a little too much like a hurry through Thatcher’s ‘Greatest’ Hits (featuring chart topping tracks such as ‘E.U. No Thank You’, ‘Sending Over Those Missiles’, and the number one favourite ‘Let’s Privatize Everything’). And this is where the problems begin- we catch, for the most part, mere glimpses of Thatcher’s 11 year reign. We see the angry strikers bashing on her window, the piles of rubbish filling the streets through lack of workers, but all this seems to simply serve as a backdrop to the story of Thatcher’s great trials and tribulations. Why exactly the workers were striking becomes worryingly unimportant. This, coupled with the flashback structure, causes the film at times to fragment to the point of shattering.
And then of course there is the running feminist theme throughout the film which, though admirable, is slightly misleading. “With all due respect sir” says Thatcher in response to suggestions that she is too inexperienced to go to war, “I have done battle every single day of my life”. The line is uttered with such fervour from Streep that we almost buy it entirely. Until we remember that the only woman Thatcher was really interested in helping was, unfortunately, herself. Sure, her ascent to power in such a male dominated society was extraordinary, but to show her as some sort of feminist icon is implausible. This is, after all, the woman who said; “I hate feminism. It is poison”.
Its portrayal of a historical political figure then is heartfelt but flawed- but where the film redeems itself is simply in its portrait of a woman’s fall from grace. Ageing is a merciless and often unglamorous process, which can strip even the most powerful of people of their mental and physical proficiency. What The Iron Lady seems to remind us is that behind every ignored or patronised pensioner is a whole lifetime of experiences. Not everyone has led Britain into the Falklands War or been nearly assassinated by the IRA - but here these become allegorical; evocative of the universal feelings of retrospective pride and regret. One look at Streep’s pained face as Thatcher’s son tells her he won’t be visiting, and years of power-hungry supremacy dissolve away to reveal a vulnerable old woman facing her life at its close.
As to whether or not one can truly prise apart the private, vulnerable human from Thatcher’s inherently political legacy - the jury’s out.
The Iron Lady is on at York City Screen. For more information, click here