Streep Rules as Thatcher in The Iron Lady
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2012 13 Jan
DVD Release Date: April 10, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: January 13, 2012 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images and brief nudity)
Genre: Drama, Biopic
Run Time: 105 min.
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Actors: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Olivia Colman
There aren’t too many films that extol political conservatism these days, but those views are championed in The Iron Lady. And why shouldn’t they be? Director Phyllida Lloyd’s (Mamma Mia!) biopic showing the ascent of Margaret Thatcher to become Great Britain’s first female prime minister—and her decline in old age—doesn’t shy away from the baldly conservative philosophy that propelled her rise to prominence.
Political conservatives might cheer the film, which offers rousing speeches about succeeding through hard work and about the dangers of dependency on the government. But politics aside, does The Iron Lady succeed as a dramatic film?
The film doesn’t offer an unvarnished portrait of Thatcher. If anything, it leans too strongly on her frailty in old age. Using a framing story set in the present day, Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame) spend much of the movie depicting an elderly Thatcher (Meryl Streep, It's Complicated) who battles hallucinations, a failing memory and a tendency to think she’s still in charge. Horrified by TV footage of a bombing, Thatcher announces, to no one in particular, that Great Britain “must never, ever, ever give in to terrorists.” She wants to prepare a statement. Her caretakers, who appear to have heard the elderly Thatcher’s proclamations before, politely ignore her demands.
Thatcher’s dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent, Arthur Christmas), serves as her ghostly companion in these sequences, making Margaret laugh, giving her advice and generally keeping her company. Thatcher’s only other semi-frequent human companion is her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman), who has to remind her mother that Denis is dead, and that Carol’s twin brother moved far away long ago.
Extended flashbacks to Margaret’s youth and entrance into politics remind viewers that her path to Number 10 Downing Street wasn’t an easy one. Alexandra Roach plays the young Thatcher, who was a bright student and deep admirer of her father, a local politician from whom she learns her guiding principles about self-determination. The other men in her life are skeptical of Margaret’s ambition, but she plows ahead undaunted, winning the affection of Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd, Jane Eyre). In the movie’s strongest bucking of traditional ideas, Margaret tells Denis after he’s just proposed marriage to her that she’s determined to make her life “matter.” She wants something more than housework. “I cannot die washing a teacup,” she tells Denis.
She loses one election but wins the next, then faces a different kind of fight: how to put an end to her male colleagues’ chauvinism. In a film lacking visual verve, one highlight is a shot of Thatcher from above as she enters Parliament for the first time dressed in blue—a vibrant standout among the male legislators’ dark hats. In screenwriter Morgan’s selective telling, Thatcher proves a formidable debater but also needs help with her vocal style and dress. “Your voice is too high. It has no authority,” says a speech trainer. She soon finds her voice, taking on the terrorist tactics of the IRA, the battle for the Falkland Islands (“it’s a war they started; by God, we’ll finish it”), the unions and what she calls “the shackles of socialism.” Her advisers warn her about appearing to be out of touch, but she never appears to waver from her belief that only those with the greatest needs should be offered government assistance. Everyone else should work hard to get by and achieve a higher standard of living.
Streep, too, finds her voice as Thatcher—quite literally. Beyond her physical resemblance to Thatcher, Streep has nailed the former prime minister’s voice, allowing the audience to fall under the spell of Thatcher’s speeches and ideas. She makes Thatcher sympathetic without compromising the politician’s unswerving beliefs, even after the public turns on her.
The Iron Lady is strongest in showing Thatcher’s rise and political rule, but it sags when the story reverts to Thatcher in her old age. These sequences are sometimes tender, but the frailty on display threatens to overwhelm the dynamic depiction of Thatcher in her prime. The strength of the film is due almost entirely to Streep’s wonderful performance, and not so much to Morgan’s script, which too lightly skates over the “why” of some of Thatcher’s decisions. (Ronald Reagan admirers also will be disappointed by the brief attention paid to the American president.) However, when Thatcher gives a speech or addresses her advisers, the conviction in her voice and words provides a resounding reminder that her ideas, when expressed by someone who firmly believes in them, haven’t lost their power. Even those who disagree with the ideas should admire Thatcher’s against-the-odds tenacity in tackling an old boys’ club mentality in Parliament.
Streep’s masterful performance makes The Iron Lady worth watching, even though the film is far from perfect. Denis’ antics grow tiresome, and the film never provides enough depth in covering the political upheaval in Great Britain or the strains in Thatcher’s marriage and relationship with her children. But when it’s good, The Iron Lady soars on the personal dynamism and political rhetoric of a politician who stood up for what she believed in. The Iron Lady is a film that deserves to be seen and discussed.
- Language/Profanity: “d-mn”; “by God”; “ba-tards”; “lily-livered pinkos.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Margaret requests whiskey with dinner; a man pours liquid from a flask into his and Margaret’s cups; Margaret drinks while watching a video and later at dinner; her husband tells her, “You’re drinking too much”; a cigar is lit.
- Sex/Nudity: Topless women are briefly seen; husband and wife kiss.
- Violence/Crime: A bloody victim of a bombing is shown; a car bomb detonates, killing the driver; footage of dead horses and more bombings carried out by the IRA.
- Religion: Margaret shares a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
- Marriage: Margaret tells her husband-to-be that she’ll never be one of those women who does housework and nothing else, explaining that she wants to “be more than that” and that she “cannot die washing a teacup”; Denis heads overseas after being reminded that he married someone “committed to public service.”
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