A film review by Craig J. Koban January 16, 2012


2011, PG-13, 105 mins.


Margaret Thatcher: Meryl Streep / Denis Thatcher: Jim Broadbent / Young Margaret: Alexandra Roach / Young Denis: Harry Lloyd / Carol Thatcher: Olivia Colman / Edward Heath: John Sessions

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd / Written by Abi Morgan

THE IRON LADY is proof positive that an extraordinarily skilled and bravura lead performance can be wasted by an ill-focused screenplay that lacks any sort of compelling angle.  

Here’s an overly stylized biopic about one of the 20th Century’s most prominent, powerful, and controversial female politicians that regretfully has very little – if anything – to actually say about this woman.  Of course, I am referring to Margaret Thatcher, a conservative-leaning politician that revitalized Great Britain during times of great uncertainty while serving as its Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.  It’s too bad, though; that this film doesn’t teach viewers anything more about her than what a cursory Wikipedia search could provide. 

What’s worse is that we have one of the most imminent actresses alive in Meryl Streep, incomparably at the absolute zenith of her thespian form here playing one of greatest political figures of all time in a film that simply has no real opinion of her.   Abi Morgan’s screenplay most certainly gives us insights into Thatcher’s oftentimes polarizing personality, but beyond that we get little penetrating commentary about what made her such a fiercely determined, tenaciously independent minded, and unwavering political force.  Here’s a person that courageously bucked the backward-minded socio-political forces and norms of her time and became a principled and intelligent leader of a whole nation through sheer willpower and convictions in her abilities to do so.  Regretfully, THE IRON LADY glosses over all of the meaningful rationales that led to her prominence; it’s like Cliff Notes history detailing salient factual points rather than engaging in intriguing discourse. 

The overall makeup of the narrative is also an unconstructively scattershot and bizarre construction of uneven flashbacks and flash-forwards, rudimentary archival footage, time-lapsing montages, and Thatcher's own personal delusions when, in the present and in her 80’s, she is a frail, senile, and elderly shell of her former self that battles dementia and perhaps Alzheimer’s.  There is some tear-breaking poignancy regarding how the film deals with her current physical and mental state, but it almost detracts too much away from her formative career.  These tender moments of elderly normalcy are shoehorned in with her hallucinations of her long-deceased husband, Dennis (played in an infectiously wry performance by Jim Broadbent).  From there, the film then segues back and forth between the present and various points in the past, and it does so both haphazardly and unsatisfactorily. 

The film recounts the young Thatcher’s journey from a young working class woman that desperately tried to find a portal into the staunchly male-dominated Tory Party in the British House of Commons.  We then see her transformation into a female member of the House and, eventually, her fateful decision to run for the highest office in the country.  Her personal voyage, however, would not be easy.  She had to overcome rampant sexism in her profession as well as all those nagging doubts that a woman could, in fact, be the Prime Minister of a country during a time when no other democratic nation had a female leader.  



She became the Leader of the Opposition (Conservative Party) in 1975 and the first woman to lead a major political party in UK history.  She then led her party to victory in the general election of 1979 to become Prime Minister and by the time she settled in at 10 Downing Street she became deeply convinced that she was going to reverse all policies that led to her country’s decline.  She took a hard stance on deregulation, unions, and became unpopular in her first few years in office (Great Britain of the early 80’s was ravaged by recession).  Then came the Falklands War, a resurgence of popularity, and a re-election in 1983.  By the time she resigned - well after a third re-election - in 1990, she was the longest serving PM ever. 

Yet, all of the aforementioned details are just facts about Thatcher’s rise to power without much dissertation, and that is the problem with THE IRON LADY.  The film never deeply delves into her politics, which allows it to feel stridently - and rather oddly - apolitical about a deeply opinionated politician.  Too much of the time, the narrative skips over key moments of her leadership: Take, for instance, the presence of the IRA in England or The Falklands War or Britain’s nagging unemployment during her first few years in office or her persistent criticism of unions and organized labor; what does Morgan’s script think about these issues and how Thatcher handled them?  Was Thatcher justified?  Was she too tough minded and obstinate to let in other opinions to help form her policies?  Should her domestic and foreign policies be revered or chastised?  THE IRON LADY seems absolutely desperate for a voice of these matters, but none is to be found. 

Under all of these problematic circumstances, it’s a real thankless miracle how extraordinary Streep is in her complete immersion into the role of the former “grocer’s daughter” turned Prime Minister.  She will most assuredly get an Oscar nomination for the way she captures all of the nuances of this iconic persona: the frail and mentally fractured old woman struggling with senility in the present (the age makeup here is incredibly subtle, but remarkably realistic, unlike in J. EDGAR); the loving and devoted wife; the graceful and dignified public orator; the inwardly sturdy and resolute woman making a name for herself in a male-centric arena; and a soulful and melancholic figurehead that dealt with personal and political strife.  Streep’s physical and vocal transformation is uncanny to the point where it defies simply imitation; it’s a tour de force performance as good as any she has ever given. 

Streep, alas, is so uniformly magnificent here that it all but makes THE IRON LADY’s faults glaringly stick out that much more.  The director, Phyllida Lloyd (who worked with Streep on MAMMA MIA!) seems to have found a niche for collaborating with the multiple Oscar nominated actress, but her command over the already undisciplined screenplay is ungainly.  What remains is an hollow shell of a political biopic, one that poses many queries into its subject, never dutifully answers or comments on them, and ultimately leaves viewers feeling like they are watching a greatest hits compilation of Thatcher’s superlative life story.  The Soviets did call Thatcher the “Iron Lady” because of her hard line rhetoric, tough policies and staunch opposition to them at the height of the Cold War, but what made this lady with such a iron will truly tick?  This film does not have much of a clue. 

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