Whether you’ve seen The Iron Lady yet or not, it’s quite likely you’ll have an opinion on it. Some have been appalled at its intrusive nature, expressing dismay that the filmmakers haven’t waited until Margaret Thatcher’s death before portraying her as a frail old lady with dementia. Others have speculated as to how director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan will choose to portray her. Monster of British politics? Saviour of our country? Or something more in the middle; a flawed hero, maybe. Or a demon with a soft side. Sadly the film falls a little too deep into the middle, and becomes obsessed in not judging the title character to an extent that feels naive and frustrating. I fear this will be a problem whichever side of the political fence one may occupy.
I do not admire the politics Margaret Thatcher’s government stood for. However, I do respect her for her achievements in getting elected and staying in power for as long as she did. Her life is full of remarkable successes and events; it is also full of mistakes and bad decisions. This film tries to give all of this screen time, the good and the ugly, and some moments are very effective. The scenes where Margaret has to decide whether to fight the invasion of the Falkland Islands with discussion or force are riveting. Moments from her past — when she failed to get elected, then when she later became an MP — are intriguing and nicely played.
But the main problem with this film doesn’t lie within its political portrayal of Britain’s first female Prime Minster (although there are issues there). It lies within the film’s structure and the decision to play the film as a series of flashbacks influenced by Margaret’s worsening dementia and frequent hallucinations. The film starts and ends with her imagining her dead husband Dennis is still walking around her apartment talking to her. Morgan’s screenplay gets so caught up in showing us who Margaret is now, we don’t get enough of how she was then, back when she was in power. It’s puzzling why a writer would want to avoid making this part of her life the main body of the film. At first it seems that the scenes of the old Margaret are going to book-end the film, but no, they continue all the way through. I have mixed feelings about the decision to portray her as old and mentally ill while she is still living, but narratively speaking these moments, in the end, damage the film rather than help it achieve a coherent and valid representation of a remarkable woman.
The name I have not yet mentioned is Meryl Streep. She is extraordinary. I never doubted she would be. She is a marvellous actor, part of a very special group of performers who have that special charisma and talent that allows them to work magic with even the most flawed of scripts. But flawed this script is, and although her impersonation of Margaret Thatcher is astonishingly good, it isn’t enough to save this picture from itself. She deserves an Oscar nomination, as does J. Roy Helland, the man responsible for her make-up.
I get the feeling the filmmakers (or at least the distributors) were hoping this would become 2012’s answer to The King’s Speech. There is a particular scene in the film that will remind observant viewers directly of that very picture. It is released a year (almost to the day) since Tom Hopper’s film, and many have been predicting it to conquer at the award ceremonies in a similar way. I don’t think audiences will take to it in the same way. It is a biopic of a famous British figure, but it doesn’t have triumph, friendship and heart at its core. It’s hard to know what it does have at its core. Whatever it is, it isn’t something that leaves such a rewarding feeling. The whole thing is a very odd, and disappointing, experience.
The Iron Lady (2012), directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox and Pathe, certificate 12A.