Revisiting ‘The Iron Lady’

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Film Night / Pexels

There’s something unusual about Margaret Thatcher. It’s not that she was a good or a bad politician but that her legacy is defined more by what we’re told than what we remember. This is, of course, true of every other prime minister who passes into history. Yet no other modern premier has been subject to such veneration, or such vitriol, by the children and grandchildren of those who lived during his or her premiership.

Even after her death in 2013, Thatcher remains a remarkably ubiquitous politician, even if much of her reputation and policies are diluted soundbites from critics and acolytes. With no surprise then the historical drama film about her life, 2011’s The Iron Lady, is equally divisive just as if it were made when she was in office.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia) with a script by Abi Morgan (Suffragette), the film takes a non-linear look back at the life of Thatcher from the vantage of her old age. Demented, frail and grieving for her recently deceased husband Dennis, Thatcher recalls in flashbacks her early family life, her early political life and ultimately her time as prime minister.

The Iron Lady is a highly fictionalised and romanticised version of Thatcher. It plays very much to the cantankerous and intractable image we all know without making any effort to move beyond it. Meryl Streep, in the title role, carries the three stages of Thatcher’s life from political neophyte to embattled prime minister to an elderly woman with a natural aplomb. Even without the help of prosthetics her uncanny resemblance to Thatcher in her heyday as well as her deft mastery of the sound, mannerisms and scrutinising eye of the Baroness make for a captivating performance let down by an unimaginative and hammy dialogue.

So much of the plot and the script is reminiscent of the news reports of when Thatcher died in 2013: the most controversial moments, the greatest hits. It exaggerates the odds she had to overcome and makes the every-second-sentence comments about battling and fighting wearisome. Streep exudes the strident energy for which Thatcher was acclaimed, and which ultimately cost her the top job, but there is never any subtlety or insight into the woman. It’s a fight that has perfected walking the line of giving her critics and followers exactly what they would expect.

Those looking for historical insight will be disappointed. There are some marvellous albeit melodramatic moments from Richard E. Grant as Michael Heseltine, but the story makes for a rather cheap version of House of Cards. In the film Heseltine and his male cabinet colleagues are constantly presented as scheming against Thatcher, and even if it was true to a certain extent, they are too opaquely duplicitous and two-dimensional to be believed.

By the third act, this problem removes much of the tragic element of her downfall because the cast of political characters, including Streep’s Thatcher, were unsympathetic all along. The plot never tries to make the circumstances of her defenestration any more complicated than her becoming paranoid and dissatisfied and offers only scorn rather than understanding to those Thatcher thought betrayed her. 

This is the problem with the film as a whole. It aims for Shakespearean tragedy but offers a tawdry and condensed plot that feels better suited for a television series that could give the story a full expounding.  The Iron Lady paints a picture, for convenience’s sake, that Thatcher was the first female MP (a title belonging to Constance Markievicz) fighting in a male-dominated environment, something that had been down by forebears who had long been serving in Cabinet positions.

Like ailing memory, the film forgets the details and gives the audience no greater understanding as to why Thatcher was so driven, so passionate and so iconoclastic against the politics of the day. What liberties are taken do nothing to flesh out the character because, as the public image would have it, it seems she was rather dull, humourless and impenetrable to her family, colleagues and what friends she had.

Even moments of tension, like the Falklands War, are bombastically cliched for what we are told: it is the ‘iron lady’ who wouldn’t come to heel in the face of Argentine aggression. It’s a recurring problem in the film. The cumulative effect of a lacking script is to turn this into a showcase of Streep’s talents rather than good storytelling. 

At the time of its release before Thatcher’s death, Streep’s portrayal of the elderly former prime minister was considered by some to be insensitive given she was still alive. Criticism, particularly from her acolytes, targeted the seemingly cruel malice aimed at a woman who was portrayed as mourning and seeing hallucinations of her late husband, Dennis, all for the sake of a film.

What should then be a caustic and emotive series of scenes are surprisingly pathos-free. Ageing in a multi-million-pound mansion in a London she barely recognises might be an acutely political point, but it lacks any of the sentiment of old age because the film presents Thatcher in such a textbook series of vignettes. The audience gets no real appreciation of the woman behind the premiership and the film is surprisingly gaunt on substance because of an unimaginative script. The presentation of the old prime minister and her famous moniker as the film’s title is a painfully obvious attempt at irony that doesn’t hold up in the film.

This is a shame, not least because the calibre of supporting stars joining Streep is considerable. Jim Broadbent, Iain Glen Olivia Colman and Richard E. Grant all excel, but could have been given so much more if they’d had a stronger script and more time. Anthony Head, in particular, is masterfully cast as the taciturn Geoffrey Howe, even if he never quite reaches the monotones that were so underestimated, but so deadly in the end. Special mention should be made of Jim Broadbent who plays a wonderful Dennis Thatcher getting the frivolous, nonchalant way with which he carried himself when his wife was in office spot on.

Unfortunately, a missed opportunity comes from portraying the former Labour leader, Michael Foot (Michael Pennington) as a buffoon and muse to Thatcher in the 1980s. It betrays the film as a  politically-lite attempt at showcasing Thatcher as a heroine precisely because it doesn’t consider the ramifications of how her policies, hammered through with the tenacity the picture focusses on, affected so many people.

With a deeply flawed script and unimaginative direction that veers from sentiment to political drama, it’s up to leading lady Meryl Streep to carry the show with verve and uncanny accuracy. The Iron Lady tries to walk the line between the strident victory of Thatcher and the singular isolation it brought but doesn’t tell either side well. It is never quite a political history and never reaches the depths of a personal film.

In the end, you’re left feeling that this is a glorified adaptation of a dull Wikipedia entry. 

*

I originally wrote a review of The Iron Lady for the now long defunct ToryHoose website. When they went under, they took my review with it. While I don’t remember what I wrote five years ago, I do hope that this is considerably better.

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Alastair Stewart 261 Articles

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer, journalist, and teacher based in Edinburgh and Almería. He regularly writes about politics, history, and culture for magazines across Europe.


He was formerly a press officer at the Scottish Parliament. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations.


Alastair founded DARROW in 2013 to support new and emerging writing talent in Scotland around the world.

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