There’s a scene in The Iron Lady when Meryl Streep, as a very elderly Margaret Thatcher, is being examined by her doctor. “How do you feel?” he asks. She scoffs dismissively and retorts, “Ask me what I think.”
What audiences feel (or think) about Margaret Thatcher may depend on their politics, but there is no denying The Iron Lady is another tour de force by Streep, who nails the voice and physicality Great Britian’s first and only female Prime Minister with eerie accuracy. She also delivers a layered performance that approaches compassion, even when the script gives her little to work with.
Writer Abi Morgan (Shame) and director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia! also starring Meryl) lay out Thatcher’s rise to power and subsequent ouster through a present-day Thatcher’s flashbacks, triggered by the early stages of dementia. There are numerous scenes of Thatcher rattling around her house, having conversations with her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). Those hallucinations bring her back to defining moments in her life and career.
Starting from her teen years as the daughter of a politically ambitious grocer, young Margaret Roberts (a very good Alexandra Roach) is heavily influenced by her father’s up-by-your-boot-straps philosophy. After a stint at Oxford and marriage to Denis Thatcher, Mrs. Thatcher enters politics, eventually winning a seat as a Member of Parliament.
Frustrated by her peers’ conciliatory wrangling, she runs for the leadership of the Conservative party, not to win, but to “shake them up.” At least that’s what Thatcher initially claims, even if Streep’s flashing eyes hint at higher ambitions. Sure enough, Thatcher quickly switches gears. If she wants to change her party, she should just lead it herself. She works on her voice (lower!) and changes her hair (more important!) and goes on to win, becoming leader of her party.
By the time Thatcher makes history by being elected Prime Minister, she is a fully formed force of nature who has little use for debate, compromise, popularity or second-guessing herself.
Intercut with some real news footage, the film touches upon how much labor unions, rioters and average citizens hated Thatcher, but frustratingly, never explains the history behind their protests. It doesn’t bother to explain why the IRA loathed her so much they tried to assassinate her with a bomb. It whizzes by Thatcher’s relationship with her political soul mate, Ronald Reagan, with a brief dancing scene, as if any conversation between the two wouldn’t have been interesting.
The Falkland war is given slightly more depth of treatment, although not by much. A military briefing on the Argentinian ship, the Belgrano, in which she barks orders to, “Sink it,” is followed by Thatcher handwriting letters to every family of British soldiers killed in action, assuring them that their sons “did not die in vain.” That’s as far as the film goes when holding Thatcher’s politics up to the mirror of her personality.
Perhaps the problem is the subject itself. Retired world leaders rarely issue mea culpas. Instead, they write memoirs re-stating how very right they were, then and now. Thatcher is no different, even when complaining about the price of milk today: It never occurs to her (as many analysts think,) that she helped usher in the economy she lives in. Apparently, irony is lost on the Iron Lady.
Regardless of your opinion of Margaret Thatcher, and despite an uneven script that misses several opportunities, the film is entirely watchable, especially if you’re a fan of Meryl Streep transformations.
The Iron Lady opens on December 30 in Los Angeles and New York, and throughout Europe beginning January 5.
The official trailer below implies the movie is an uplifting piece about a strong woman who beat the odds and did something for feminism. It’s half right.