Film Review: The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher as you’ve never seen her… This imaginative, entertaining biopic is as unconventional as its subject, and as clever as the actress who plays her.

The opening scene is a cinematic coup de maître. The Iron Lady begins so unexpectedly, so understatedly, that audiences may find themselves checking their tickets to make sure they’re in the right auditorium. Could that be Meryl Streep? Could this be Margaret Thatcher? They’ll be begging the question. The peerless actress soon establishes why the title of the movie should be Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady: She rules the film much as the prime minister did Britannia in the 1980s—with consummate skill and confidence.

Streep has garnered a record 16 Oscar nominations over the course of her storied career, winning for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice, and she’ll add to that total when the Academy announces its 84th slate in January. Her performance is uncanny, both as the rising star of the Conservative Party who, in 1979 against long odds, became Britain’s first female prime minister, and as the frail mum who, in the imagination of screenwriter Abi Morgan, clings tenuously to her dignity, watched over by solicitous secretaries and armed guards. Streep is, in effect, her own supporting actress, although one can argue which role deserves top billing: the aggrieved shopkeeper’s daughter in Parliament, dressing down the public-school boys on the opposite side of the bench, or the grieving widow reluctantly weeding out her late husband’s closets, stroking his suits with a lint brush.

Should Streep earn a third statuette for her portrayal, then Morgan, who also scripted this year’s fest-favorite Shame, deserves some credit for ignoring biopic conventions, opting to tell the story through Thatcher’s random recollections evoked by the shade of her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). The impressionistic device—only Margaret sees Denis, but Margaret is suffering from incipient dementia—allows director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) to concentrate on selected moments in Thatcher’s life rather than chronicle her whole career, relegating Thatcher’s politics to deep focus. Ironically, The Iron Lady is from start to finish a love story, not an ideological argument, although the filmmakers give due diligence to Thatcher’s strongly held beliefs in self-reliance and the free market.

As a consequence, prominent events—from the troubles in Northern Ireland to the labor strikes in England—are broadly sketched or barely mentioned, and the undeclared Falklands War becomes an illustration (albeit an accurate one) of the prime minister’s stalwart character. The Cold War gets the cold shoulder, but so do Thatcher’s monetarist and privatization policies. In the end, even staunch progressives will be able to concede, grudgingly, that our heroine stayed true to her ideals while proving that women can lead great nations in the modern world. (How else to explain über-liberal distributor Harvey Weinstein plugging the movie on Fox News?)

For all of the superlatives that might be attached to The Iron LadyStreep’s performance, of course, as well as Broadbent’s amiable turn as Denis, plus Marese Langan’s outstanding make-up artistry, Simon Elliot’s smart production design, and director Lloyd’s stylish choreography that turns key moments in Thatcher’s rise and eventual fall into pop art—the movie never bothers to dramatize the essential bond between Margaret and Denis, relying instead on flashbacks to their carefree youth (Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd standing in for Streep and Broadbent) and the playful if unworldly banter between widow and ghost. As with most two-hour biopics, even clever ones like this, the filmmakers are obliged to cut corners, in this case demoting the supporting cast to glorified stand-ins (Richard E. Grant as Michael Heseltine, Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, John Sessions as Edward Heath).

Still, The Iron Lady is a far more interesting interpretation of a prominent life than the unsatisfying J. Edgar (an inevitable comparison, since both are biopics about controversial figures that hedge their bets by focusing on their personal rather than political lives), and it’s amusing to consider that rock-ribbed liberal filmmakers are willing to find good in a naughty conservative. For years, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were bookends propping up all that’s wrong with the world until Bush and Blair relieved them of that onerous chore. Now we can think of one of them as Maggie, a kinder and gentler version of herself, if still not quite right in the head.