Director Phyllida Lloyd reunites with her Mamma Mia! star Meryl Streep to recount the life and career of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady is part hagiography and part biopic but it’s all Meryl, all the time.
Streep’s uncannily accurate impersonation of Thatcher is the best thing about the film, which flits through the highlights of the politician’s controversial leadership like a bored reader ruffling through another political autobiography, looking for the glossy wedge of photos. Opening in the present day, we see an elderly, unsteady Baroness Thatcher, buy a pint of milk from a corner shop. She has dementia and returns home to subdued bedlam as her police protection squad and devoted daughter Carol (Olivia Colman, wearing an ill-advised prosthetic nose) wonder where she’d wandered off to.
Chastened and calmed with a G&T, Thatcher stumbles through the house, haunted by the imagined ghost of her late husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), as they share their recollections of her past triumphs and disappointments, political and personal, in a stream of hit-and-miss flashbacks.
The first trip down memory lane brings us all the way back to the beginning, as grocer’s daughter Margaret Roberts (played by Alexandra Roach) is being interviewed as a prospective Conservative candidate for the Dartford constituency. Sat at the end of a table full of local political bigwigs, a nervous Margaret sticks her chin out and defies them to ignore her. One of the guests is businessman Denis (Harry Lloyd), who takes a shine to the rising politician and asks her out to a tea dance. Sometime later, after a failed election bid, he asks her to marry him and they soon form a double act: he works to support their two children while she pursues her career at the polls. Eventually elected to Parliament, one of the very few women in the house, Thatcher quickly makes strides in the Conservative party; becoming Education secretary in 1970.
From the time of her election to Prime Minister nine years later, to her eventual resignation in 1990, director Lloyd and her screenwriter Abi Morgan trace the contours of Thatcher’s political career in broad strokes, relying on news footage to fill in the detail. These montages of familiar footage – bolstered by a quick scene with a pair of edge-sanding political spin doctors – serve to show Thatcher as she was seen by the media, which is not necessarily how she was seen by the British people and undoubtedly not how she saw herself. When the going gets especially tough for her leadership in the early 1980s, with Britain’s manufacturing economy failing, deepening social division and deep-rooted problems such as long term unemployment and an unwieldy public service, Streep’s unquestionable ferocity is tempered by the sensation that there is a lot of this stuff to get through, so Lloyd is going to make it quick.
What saved Thatcher’s skin, in the first instance, was the Falklands War, which Lloyd cannot resist treating as an afternoon with Dr Strangelove with Streep glowering at one end of the table while her generals bluster. The rest of her premiership is treated in the same fashion; the miner’s strike and the Brixton riots dissolve into a blur of fuzzy newsreel clips followed by one of Streep’s trademark imperious stares. It’s a selected highlights reel, with the vicious situation in Northern Ireland at the time barely meriting mention, with the hunger strikes sidelined to a couple of lines of dialogue and a few waved black flags on television. No “out, out, out”.
By the time it comes for Thatcher to step off the political stage, her fall is almost a relief. Lloyd gives tantalising glimpses of the political chicanery that brought her down, as her key ally Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) gradually turns against her while the ambitious Michael Heseltine (an underused Richard E Grant) flicks his cowlick in the background. But the situation is too briefly explained for dramatic satisfaction and the film ends on a long, drawn-out note of treacly sentiment. Through all this, Streep’s Thatcher is alternately tough and single-minded, patronising or unspeakably rude but The Iron Lady only rarely allows her to be all those things at once. Nevertheless, it is the veteran actress’s performance that lifts the film out of the banal.