The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady

Margaret Hilda Thatcher was one of the most polarising figures in British public life in the last 50 years. Like President Reagan in the United States, her election heralded a change in the political landscape of her nation. She championed the privitisation of nationalised industries, she fought the trade unions and she aimed to reverse the decline of Britain as a world power.

Little of this agenda is evident in THE IRON LADY. Writer Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd take the bold step of humanising their subject by presenting her in frail old age. The first few minutes of the movie are quite startling as we are forced to consider this powerful figure in her dotage.  This is not a mere device to top and tail the picture; for much of the film, the aged Thatcher (Streep) is shown struggling with daily life. Her memory plays tricks on her and she frequently flashes back to important points of her (mostly) political life. The first campain to win a parliamentary seat. Her first day in The Opposition. Heated sessions in the House of Commons.

Past episodes from her personal life are fewer in number and mostly chart her relationship with her ever-reliable husband Dennis (Broadbent).  Her daughter Carol (Colman) is more marginal and her adult son Mark is wholly absent. The scenes showing Thatcher attempting to raise her young family at the same time as becoming a parliamentarian are interesting. One of the movies themes is that Thatcher was somewhat  absent herself when it came to her family and that affairs of govenment dominated her time.

Which is why THE IRON LADY’s take on Thatcher’s political career is so frustrating. The Miner’s Strike of 1984 lasted almost a year. It lead to the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers and was an absolute victory for the Conservatives. It was one of the political battles that defined Thatcher’s premiership and yet it is treated as a series of mob scenes in which the PM looks uncomfortable yet resolute, as she is driven through picket lines. Frankly, the film BILLY ELLIOT (2000) did a better job of covering this conflict.

The Falklands War was another defining moment and once again, the filmmakers don’t take the ball and run with it. It’s as though they were wary of making the movie too talky and weighing it down with politics. This is always a risk in a political drama, but by under-doing the politics they do Thatcher a disservice. Whatever one thinks of her, she was an absolute political animal. The sheer force of her personality was formidable, but this is all we are shown; we never see the savviness and calculation that every successful politician must employ.

Make no mistake, Streep is fantastically good in the lead role. The voice, the posture and the attitude are all there. Streep allows us to see  the emotions beneath the impersonation, too. This is yet another beautifully judged performance. Sadly, this movie’s Iron Lady is surrounded by mere Yes Men and her challengers are easily toppled Straw Men. Geoffrey Howe flashes through and just as you’re thinking, “Isn’t that Giles form Buffy?” he’s gone.  Richard E Grant turns up as Michael Heseltine and before you can enjoy the potential poltical head-to-head, he’s whipped out of the narrative.  

This is all part of the film’s soft-headed thesis that Margaret Thatcher was some kind of avatar of feminism. We see her taking on the male establishment of the Conservative party, but we needed to see her dealing with the other challenges of being in the Top Job. Clearly, her being the first female Prime Minister of Britain, was some kind of victory for the women’s movement, but Thatcher herself remains a problematical figure for feminists. This movie is boldy revisionist in suggesting Thatcher as a feminist icon.

As one who is philosophically opposed to what Thatcher wrought politically, I still believe her years as PM deserved a more in-depth and analytical treatment than writer Morgan and director Lloyd offer us. Making us feel compassion for an elderly Thatcher was the approach the filmmakers took, but allowing us to understand what truly made her tick at the height of her powers would have been a more impressive achievement. However, THE IRON LADY is undoubtedly an entertaining movie with an impressive central performance. It is Streep who makes the film as watchable and engaging as it is.

THE IRON LADY opens in Australia in December 26, 2011. It runs for  105 minutes. I rated it 2.5/5.