Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) and written by Abi Morgan (Shame), The Iron Lady is quite a departure from the films for which these two women are most well known. This biopic chronicles the life of Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep, Alexandra Roach), Prime Minister of the U.K. from 1979 to 1990, and takes its title from the nickname given to the leader by the Soviets for her vocal opposition to Russia’s growing power.
The film’s opening scenes take place presumably in the present, depicting Thatcher as an elderly woman struggling with dementia and guarded in her home by her handlers. Her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), who passed away in 2003, exists in the film as a figment of the old woman’s imagination. Thatcher’s chats with him form a narrative scaffolding that allows for multiple flashbacks. The important moments of Thatcher’s career are recorded, from her first (unsuccessful) run for Parliament to her 1979 arrival at 10 Downing Street as the nation’s first female Prime Minister. The film dashes through the significant episodes of her reign — trade union strikes, the Falklands War, an IRA assassination attempt, her eventual resignation from the office of Prime Minister – with little time afforded the historical context in which these events occurred.
Alexandra Roach plays young Margaret, or “MT” as Denis calls her, while Meryl Streep plays Thatcher in both her middle-aged and octogenarian incarnations. Roach shines with determination as the young Margaret assures Denis that she will not die washing a teacup. As Thatcher in her political years, Streep is radiant in blue suit after blue suit, her hair coaxed into a high helmet that is only slightly less elevated than Thatcher’s real-life do. As the elderly woman, Streep is flawless as ever, as in a scene when Thatcher visits her doctor. When he makes the mistake of asking her how she feels, she counters that people today do too much feeling and too little thinking. “Ok,” says the doctor, “Then what do you think?” Streep delivers her lines with beautiful measure: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny. What we think we become. My father always said that. And I think I am fine.” Streep won the Golden Globe for best actress in a dramatic feature for the performance, and critics seem fairly certain that in a month’s time she’ll be holding up the Oscar as well.
Besides Streep’s performance, one of the chief pleasures of this film is its tour through 1980s British history. Especially for those who are too young to remember the politics of that time, it’s an eye-opener. What really brings this home is the use of real news footage from the era. Video of mounted police trampling British protesters under their horses will remind moviegoers that today’s street battles over budget cuts are nothing new. Even more powerful is a clip of the sinking of the HMS Sheffield by an Argentine missile during the Falklands War. Twenty crew members were killed in the sinking, and as the film cuts to Thatcher in her office, it asks viewers to consider the difficulty involved in the decisions a powerful leader must make on a daily basis.
As far as the politics of the film itself, its treatment of Thatcher seems quite neutral. Thatcher’s policies are neither celebrated nor condemned here. Instead, Lloyd and Morgan seem to have wanted to focus on the story of a woman who was determined to do what she believed was right, despite her detractors, including those in her own party. In that way, the film will be inspiring for all those who find themselves in positions of leadership, especially women.
At the same time, this neutrality is the film’s primary flaw. It’s a biopic that is too on-the-fence regarding a woman who was anything but. Thatcher’s policies were incredibly controversial. Some loved her fiercely and others hated her deeply, and this film would have been better-served had its creators included more hints as to why. Filmmakers are sometimes excoriated for inserting political opinions into their productions, but here we see what happens when the film itself casts no judgment upon its subject. The Iron Lady becomes tedious in places, not because we’re not being told what to think, but because we’re not given enough to think about. Why, for example, was Thatcher the target of an assassination attempt by the IRA? What are the details of her war with the unions? Why did Argentina want the Falklands in the first place? What is the history of England’s presence there?
This lack of historical context may be the reason the film feels so uncentered, with no strong, central conflict to tie the film together. One can’t help making a comparison to the other biopic about an iconic woman that is in theaters presently. My Week with Marilyn, as a film, recognizes that a life like Marilyn Monroe’s is just too large to compress into two hours. Perhaps The Iron Lady would have been more effective as both a biopic and a narrative if its creators had focused on one singular conflict in Margaret Thatcher’s life. Because the most arresting scenes of the film come as Thatcher expresses her indignation over the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, it is possible that a film focusing primarily on her handling of the Falklands War might have allowed for more conflict while further delineating Thatcher’s character. Sometimes a film can cast light on an entire life by focusing on one brief event contained in it. (Think of President John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days, which covered the Cuban Missile Crisis.) My Week with Marilyn, in recreating just a small slice of Monroe’s life, allowed viewers to consider the star’s broader experiences, while at the same time offering them a more enjoyable movie. In the case of Lloyd’s film, focusing on only one of Thatcher’s many challenges might have allowed us to better understand why they called her “The Iron Lady” in the first place.
Final Verdict: The Iron Lady offers a brilliant performance by Meryl Streep, along with an informative, if rushed, tour through 1980s British history. Its flaw is that its attempt at neutrality and lack of context leave the narrative without a strong central conflict.