The Iron Lady

Finally went to see The Iron Lady yesterday. From a movie standpoint, I thought it was excellent; as a biopic, it was good, but distinctly lacking in vital areas.

It’s impossible to comment on this film without addressing the controversy surrounding it – namely, that should it have been made while Margaret Thatcher was still alive, and should it have portrayed her dementia? Having seen it, I must say the treatment of Thatcher’s senility has been tastefully done, and served to humanise her in a way that little else could have done. A woman known as the ‘Iron Lady’ and for being the most divisive political figure in modern British history is not likely to arouse much sympathy, but this film has managed to do just that. As to whether it should have been made while she’s alive…books that examine public figures far more intimately than any movie have been published during their subjects’ lifetimes for decades now, so it’s hard to find a convincing argument why The Iron Lady should not have been made.

Now, to the film itself. I must add another round of plaudits to the universal acclaim given to Meryl Streep for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. To call this mere impersonation is an insult to an extraordinarily talented actress and what she has achieved here. She doesn’t mimic Thatcher to a high standard, she is Thatcher. It is one of the most multi-dimensional performances I’ve ever seen on screen; as the film revolves around flashbacks, we see the contrast between the frail, lonely, dementia-stricken widow of recent years and the ferociously strong, sharply intelligent politician who blazed a trail to Downing Street for future British women to follow, and both Thatchers are brought vividly to life by Streep. I will confess, some of the scenes between the elderly Maggie and her husband Denis (another wonderful turn by the wonderful Jim Broadbent), who having been dead for several years exists only as a figment of her imagination, brought a tear to my eye. The supporting cast is also strong, if wasted; Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine is barely more than a cameo.

A lot has been said about The Iron Lady’s refusal to go into detail about Thatcher’s actual policies or offer a critique of the woman and her government either way. While on the whole I think this a wise move, it does tend to make this more of a generic  ‘woman takes on the world’ story than a true biopic. When the film focuses on Thatcher’s growing and virulent unpopularity with the public, we’re shown scenes of protests, strikes and riots being crushed by the police, usually followed by Thatcher making a tough-as-nails, never-back-down speech. The effect of this, whether intentional or not, is to make Thatcher look like an exemplar of reasonableness and tough love; a mother telling the populace to eat their vegetables, if you will, because the policies causing the uprisings are never mentioned. But the structure of the movie itself offers a possible explanation for the apolitical to rose-coloured view of key moments in Maggie’s premiership – what we are seeing is clearly Thatcher’s own memories, triggered by events/ things in the present. It could be that scriptwriter Abi Morgan deliberately invoked the unreliable narrator device here.

On a related note, the Iron Lady’s main weakness is that, unless you are a politico or know a lot about Thatcher herself, certain scenes won’t make sense. As I’ve mentioned above, her policies are unexplained; the words ‘trade unions’ and ‘mines’ each get said about once during the protest montages and that’s it. Another example is the opening scene where an elderly Maggie evades her keepers to purchase a pint of milk at her local shop. It’s clearly a reference to her infamous decision to cut free school milk while Education Secretary, leading to the popular refrain of “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher”, but how many people outside Britain or only familiar with Prime Minister Thatcher will be aware of the reference? Not many, I’d wager. And there’s the habit the film has of including key political figures without bothering to explain who they are or what position they hold. Thatcher’s Chancellor and the man who would start the avalanche leading to her downfall, Geoffrey Howe, is mentioned by first name only for the entire film and while he’s generally heard to be talking of things concerning money, it’s never explained that he is the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Overall, it’s definitely worth seeing on its merits as a drama. Just don’t go in expecting the definitive life story of a controversial, complex leader.