Since the release of The Iron Lady’s first trailer, Phyllida Lloyd’s Thatcher biopic has been ruffling feathers on both sides of the political divide. Fans of the ex-PM were reportedly scared that Lloyd’s film would vilify Maggie, while many of us, unnerved by the trailer’s camp humour and what looked like its celebration of Thatcher as a feminist hero, were more afraid that it wouldn’t.
The first lot needn’t have worried, because The Iron Lady is no leftist hatchet job, quite the reverse. Lloyd’s film, scripted by Abi Morgan looks fondly upon Maggie, and portrays her variously as a lonely widow, a powerfully charismatic leader, and a driven young woman who triumphs over class boundaries and the patriarchy. Depending on your position on Britain’s first female PM, The Iron Lady is either a glorious vindication, or a nauseating, jingoistic whitewash.
The one point audiences from around the political spectrum are likely to agree upon is Meryl Streep’s performance in the lead role of Thatcher. Streep disappears into the role, pulling off a frighteningly bravura impersonation of Maggie, voice, posture, handbag and all.
It’s not long, however, until the odd pleasure (if that is the word for it) of watching Streep inhabit the skin of such a familiar public figure loses its novelty. Her uncanny mimicry soon shrinks away, revealing a curiously airless film which gallops through a congratulation of Thatcher’s career at such a pace you’d feel better informed by a Wikipedia page.
Streep is joined by Jim Broadbent as jocular husband Denis, Olivia Colman as daughter Carol (sporting the silliest nose in cinema since Nicole Kidman did her turn as Woolf), and a clutch of middle-aged Brit actors from Anthony Head to Richard E Grant imitating Thatcher’s cabinet. Newcomer Alexandra Roach fills in as the young Margaret Roberts before the pearls and handbag became a firm fixture. Morgan’s script opens proceedings with Thatcher as an elderly widow suffering from dementia and hallucinating conversations with her departed husband Denis. Give or take the odd racist joke, the couple’s domestic chats are more or less endearing, and the film’s portrayal of Thatcher’s senescence aims for pathos. It’s a world away from the crowing predicted by those fearful The Iron Lady would take the form of a sustained attack on the ex-Tory leader.
The Iron Lady then moves back and forth between the elderly Thatcher and scenes from her career, each nostalgic rush prompted by a song, photograph, home video, or news report. It’s a framing narrative that begins to grate after the umpteenth time the camera drifts into a photo frame to emerge forty years earlier in the Thatcher timeline.
Lloyd and Morgan are efficient storytellers, in that The Iron Lady covers reams of political events and sea changes in public opinion with swift confidence, if not with an even hand. The three-day week, 1979 election, Falklands war, miners’ strike, Brighton bombing and poll tax riots are ticked off with alacrity, conflating the various elements of popular opposition to Thatcher into one long jeered-at chauffeur-driven car journey. Streep spends much of her time under the prosthetics gazing into the middle distance to the sound of overlapping voices, news reports, and inspirational lessons from Thatcher’s father.
For all its British provenance, The Iron Lady is essentially a Hollywood treatment of Thatcher’s career. She’s painted as a plucky feminist underdog who follows her convictions whatever the cost.
So recognisably Hollywood is the film’s portrayal that audiences may find themselves making unlikely connections between Thatcher and heroes from mainstream cinema.
Maggie starts her life at Oxford as Jack from Titanic, not knowing which forks to use. She spends a spell as Simba from The Lion King, hearing her father’s advice not to “run with the crowd” on the wind, before a spot of being Bertie from The King’s Speech with a comic scene of vocal coaching. When Thatcher enters the Houses of Parliament – presented as a bombastic collection of Dutch angles and booming chauvinist men – she’s momentarily Elle from Legally Blonde (a film, incidentally, with roughly the same depth of feminist nuance as The Iron Lady).
The film strikes such an odd tone between humour, bombast, and sympathy that the question of who it was made for plagued my viewing. Not for her opposition certainly, it’s far too friendly a take on the Thatcher years, and its largely uncritical stance is too tough a swallow. A comfort blanket to Thatcherites? Perhaps.
There is another market of course; one that regularly lauds this kind of “Madame Tussauds filmmaking” (to nick a great phrase from Ken Loach), one which culminates in shiny gold statues and overseas revenue, and one in which The Iron Lady is likely to do very well.