If you read a variety of the reviews of The Iron Lady when it came out at cinemas, it really is like they were talking about completely different films. Everyone agrees Meryl Streep is ace, but to some it’s an apologia for a tyrant, to others a left wing fantasy, there are those who feel its concentration on her old age is schadenfreude taking pleasure in her mental problems, while a few believe it is a suitably reverential, right wing look at a great woman and will make people with a liberal philosophy take stock.
The problem with making a movie about Margaret Thatcher is that she’s such a divisive figure that people come to anything about her incapable of viewing it through anything but the prism of their own prejudices. The film is actually quite agnostic on whether she was a hero or villain, which makes it even easier to paint your own thoughts onto the movie.
And for a gay viewer she is perhaps even more confusing, as while her status as a powerful, driven woman would certainly put her into the gay icon category, her record on gay rights – including the odious Section 28, would rather preclude that. However despite director Phyllida Lloyd being a lesbian herself, the movie is silent on her attitude towards gay people, and even ignores the AIDS crisis, which certainly affected her time as Prime Minister. However it’s more because the film simply doesn’t have time to cover anything but the absolute highlights of Maggie’s life rather than trying to whitewash anything.
The film opens with Margaret as an old lady, dealing with senility and spending much of her time talking to her dead husband (Jim Broadbent), who she only sometimes remembers really is dead. As she goes about her life it brings up memories of the past, starting with her youth during the Blitz and working in her father’s Grantham grocer’s shop. The film then zooms us through Maggie’s entry into politics, becoming an MP, moving up the ranks and eventually making it into the top job.
It also of course touches on the pivotal moments of her premiership, such as the Falklands War, the IRA bombings and assassinations, and the increasingly self-confident attitude that eventually led to her political downfall.
The Iron Lady seems to realise there’s simply too much about Maggie to fit into a sensible running time, and so it uses its flashback structure to really zip you through the story of her life. It ensures there’s not much of a chance to really deal with her incredibly contentious politics, with the film instead hoping the viewer will agree that whether you agree with what she did or not, she was a female pioneer and a force of nature that you have to on some level admire. Some have seen the film’s concentration on her mental decline as cruel and somehow diminishing to Maggie, however I thought it was rather effective, showing senility as the great leveller that can affect you no matter who you are. Even those who reach the greatest heights of power may have to deal with the problems of old age, not because it’s karma, but because that’s just the way it is.
It’s certainly not a bad film, but its structure means it feels more like a whistle-stop tour of Maggie Thatcher than anything else, which is kind of interesting but more likely to get you going ‘oh yeah, I remember that’, rather than coming to any true understanding of the woman. Indeed that’s the film’s big problem, it wants to illuminate the woman behind the politician, but doesn’t really know what to say, as even those who worked with her for decades have said they never really knew her.
Indeed the whole film would probably seem a little tedious if it weren’t for Meryl Streep, who inhabits lead role in a way few actresses could even imagine. It really is an astonishing performance (helped more than a little by the Oscar winning make-up), which alters magnificently as Maggie ages. Whatever you think of the rest of the movie, the film is worth watching just for Streep.
The DVD release also includes a pretty good complement of behind-the-scenes featurettes. They’re all fairly short and therefore a little bitty, but overall they add up to a decent overall look at the making of the movie from its genesis to release and the reaction to it. It’s certainly interesting, particularly the changes the movie went through before it went into production, starting out as a look at Maggie around the time of the Falklands, before writer Abi Morgan broadened it out to be an elderly Lady Thatcher remembering snapshots of her life.
The fact is, whatever you think of Maggie Thatcher, she’s lived an extraordinary life and been instrumental in shaping British life in the past 30 years. The Iron Lady may not get to grips with her fully, but it is interesting.
Overall Verdict: Whatever you thought of Maggie Thatcher before the film you’ll think at the end, with your enjoyment of the movie dependent on whether you think the film disagrees with you or not (it’s neutral, but a lot of people have thought it’s on one side or the other). Either way, Streep is brilliant.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac