Two preconceptions about “The Iron Lady,” the long anticipated film about Margaret Thatcher’s life, are laid to rest on seeing it. The first was that it would be a hatchet job on our former Prime Minister. Not so: the film is relatively even-handed, and for long stretches sympathetic to its subject.
The second was that it was a travesty for American actress Meryl Streep to be playing such a very English character. Well, those doubts have been assuaged too; Streep is splendid, giving a detailed, authoritative performance that goes way beyond accurate impersonation to evoke Thatcher’s demeanour and spirit. One can think of a few talented British actresses who might have acquitted themselves well in the role, but in fairness it’s hard to imagine them doing it better than Streep.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan (TV’s “The Hour”) has fashioned a story rooted in the present, with Thatcher in her 80s, afflicted with memory loss, largely confined to her Chester Square home and reluctantly facing the task of clearing out the clothes of her husband Denis, who died eight years previously.
This device allows personal belongings and garments to trigger memories of her past life, which is then re-created in flashback. Cue a brisk gallop through a life forged by her passion for politics – starting in her teens in Grantham, where she worked in the grocery store owned by her father, the town’s Conservative mayor. (She is splendidly portrayed in these early scenes by British actress Alexandra Roach, in a breakout role as a toothy, earnest, slightly humourless young Margaret.)
From then on, it’s strictly chronological. She’s elected to Parliament, becomes Education Secretary, leader of the Tory Party and Britain’s first woman P.M. — at which point she finally gets to wreak her will. Events come and go in a blur — IRA attacks, war in the Falklands, surviving the Brighton bombing, the miners’ strike, the Big Bang, poll tax riots – before her leadership crumbles.
These episodes are interrupted by continued returns to the present, as she shuffles around her bedroom. This is a double-edged script device. On one hand, to portray Margaret Thatcher for so much of the film in a state of dementia feels skewed. Yet it must be said that these scenes of her in her dotage are by far the most affecting.
In this state, her late husband appears to her, and they talk, both amiably and tetchily. (Denis is played by Jim Broadbent in a reading not far removed from Private Eye’s Dear Bill column, as a convivial, mischievous golf club yarn-spinner, always ready for the next ‘snifter.’)
His presence is a trick of a failing mind, of course, but only in these present-day passages can Streep play the Iron Lady with any vulnerability. In the amusing opening scene, she has eluded her personal security guard and sneaked out to the local corner shop (as if!) to buy a pint of milk, the price of which astonishes her. Yet a point is being made here: even as Prime Minister she was sufficiently in touch to know what ordinary people paid for groceries.
For much of her tenure in Number 10, there’s less of a character to mine: she’s mostly an implacable, relentless force of nature who just brushes resistance aside.
Significantly, the key players in The Iron Lady are women — Streep, Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd. Men, whether the guffawing grotesques she encounters on entering Parliament, or the weak, compliant members of her Cabinet, generally receive short shrift.
Still, there’s an electrifying moment in Cabinet when she launches the rant against her deputy Geoffrey Howe that led him to resign. It’s clearly excessive on her part, and Lloyd employs a series of jump cuts to indicate as much – and maybe to foreshadow her dementia.
How people react to The Iron Lady depends on their attitude to her. David Cameron and Nick Clegg may squirm at a line in which she mocks coalitions. Trade unionists, especially ex-steelworkers and miners, will find it too kindly. It may not find favour in Argentina. (“Sink it!” she snarls about the Belgrano.) Yet American Republicans, currently lacking a presidential candidate with a fraction of Thatcher’s conviction and confidence, will surely drool at it.
This is a brave stab at a contemporary life, and even with its flaws it does Margaret Thatcher a certain grudging justice. Awards should be coming Streep’s way; yet her brilliance rather overshadows the film itself.
[Posted by permission of the author, this review was originally published in The Daily Telegraph.]