Review: ‘The Iron Lady’ Shows a Little Heart But Forgets the Brains and Courage

An old woman enters a small corner shop in London for milk and finds herself shuffled about, ignored and treated like just another no-name pensioner. What the clerk and other customers don’t know though is that this elderly lady in a head scarf, glasses and overcoat is actually their former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She played an integral role in the shaping of the Western world due to her policies and length of time in office, and was at one time as reviled as she was revered.

The Iron Lady is similar in that the film’s outward impression is far removed from the inner truth. The film should be, and by all accounts is meant to be, a look at the fascinating and historical life and times of the UK’s first and only female Prime Minister. But instead, the movie lets all of that fall by the wayside as it focuses on Thatcher as an old woman struggling to let go of her dead husband.

Meryl Streep (and the film’s make-up department) brings the historical figure to life with an amazing and expressive performance, but it’s wasted on a film more interested in lost love and the onset of dementia than it is in telling an engaging and relevant story.

“I cannot die washing up a teacup.”

The former PM returns home to a chastisement by her staff and security for venturing out on her own and some gentle ribbing from her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). She dodders about in conversation with him about their children and such and occasionally flashes back to days gone by. Small things trigger blasts from the past including her time as a young woman interested in far more than domestic duties, her first meeting with young Denis, and her entry into politics. None of these glimpses last very long though, and any momentum regarding a woman on the rise in a man’s world is repeatedly lost when the film returns to the present.

Thatcher’s early days in government are presented as a series of minor challenges including some King’s Speech-style shenanigans to smooth out her shrill speaking voice, and they culminate with her 1979 election as a conservative party Prime Minister. From there we see her deal with IRA bombings, recession, a hostile and sexist cabinet and her country’s short-lived adventure with the Falklands War.

All of these events offer the possibility of exciting and interesting storytelling, but almost like clockwork director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan repeatedly let their film grind to a halt as it returns to elderly Thatcher and her ghost of a husband. She’s weak and frail in these scenes, not at all “the Iron Lady” that the Soviet leaders once referred to her as. Denis’ death in 2003 has left her a lonely and somewhat depressed woman, and her ongoing memory loss has confused things further. She knows Denis is gone but is together enough to hide the fact that she still “speaks” with him.

Even though her awareness of Denis’ state argues more for a case of depression and loneliness than it does for Thatcher’s reported battle with dementia the film-makers work to argue the latter through dizzying camera-work, Streep’s quirky behaviors and a near constant focus on the poor, old woman who misses her husband. On more than one occasion we see Thatcher in a car surrounded by frustrated Britons as the camera tilts to show the mania and frenzy around her. A cabinet meeting descends into personal chaos for Thatcher as she begins to react to sounds (memories?) that only she can hear and she’s forced to cut the gathering short. Were the film not written and directed by women the case could be argued that it’s intentionally making the case against women in politics. And again, just as past events and conflagrations threaten to get interesting the movie jumps back to the uneventful and unexciting present day.

Those past events, the history that Thatcher affected, deserve more attention than they get here. Bombings, protests and important war decisions are glimpsed mostly in montage scenes that never allow viewers the opportunity to see the Prime Minister in action. We’re teased with one short but fun scene with Thatcher battling her opponents in the House of Commons and little else. We’re given brief views of her making unpopular decisions, but the movie rarely allows for any degree of real follow up or assessment. The film simply isn’t interested in the history.

There’s no doubt that Streep gives a charismatic and lively performance here (even if it does occasionally resemble her turn as Julia Child in Julie & Julia), but it’s equally without doubt that her performance far outweighs the film itself. Streep really is the only reason to watch, and for most viewers that’s just not enough to warrant 100 minutes of their time. It’s a shame as Thatcher’s life and career are filled with a rich history that could and should have made for engaging cinema.

The Upside: Meryl Streep.

The Downside: Disjointed screenplay and structure; important issues glossed over with a montage; way too much time spent in present day.

On the Side: Not that you need a reason, but watching this dull and lifeless film will make you want to watch Love Actually just for the Hugh Grant as Prime Minister scenes.

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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