THE STORY – In her twilight years, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) reflects on her life and career as she finally prepares to dispose of the belongings of her late husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). Daughter of a Grantham grocer, she successfully broke through a double-paned glass ceiling of gender and class. Thatcher became the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom and remained as such for 11 consecutive years, until declining popularity forced her to resign.
THE CAST – Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach & Harry Lloyd
THE TEAM – Phyllida Lloyd (Director) & Abi Morgan (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
There’s no denying that numerous controversial figures have taken on the role of Prime Minister in the UK. However, none may be as controversial as Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister who sat in office from May 1979 to November 1990. It was a Soviet journalist who dubbed Thatcher the Iron Lady due to her uncompromising politics and leadership style that led to her being elected for three terms. However, her political philosophy of the privatization of state-owned companies and the reduced power and influence of trade unions, led to a rise in unemployment and a lack of support from the working class. When Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013, “The Wizard of Oz” song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” charted at the number two spot in the UK Official Chart for the week. With the many takes on Thatcher’s political career, it would be no easy feat to present a version of her on-screen that everyone would agree with.
“The Iron Lady” begins with Thatcher in the present day. In a series of flashbacks, the audience is presented with a young Margaret Roberts listening to the political speeches of her father. After winning a place at Oxford University, Thatcher overcomes the struggle of being a young lower-middle-class woman to break into a male-dominated Conservative Party and find a seat in the House of Commons. Aspects of Thatcher’s run as Prime Minister, such as the 1984-1985 UK miners’ strike and the 1982 Falklands War, frame her time in the office, while the present-day sequences show Thatcher trying to cope with the loss of her husband and learning to live with dementia.
You know the work will be good when you cast Meryl Streep in a role like this. Despite receiving 17 Oscar nominations for Best Actress, she has only won the award twice – one of which was for her performance as Thatcher. While it is almost impossible to say whether this is one of the best performances of her lifetime, there is no denying her win for this role. This is such a tough role to portray, particularly with the framing of the narrative and the numerous aspects of Thatcher’s life that is depicted on screen. Streep’s performance helps the audience buy into the role from the moment she is on screen. It is not just about the depiction of Thatcher in office and as a political leader, but the depiction of Thatcher as a mother, as someone who has lost her husband, and as someone who is going through a diagnosis as devastating as dementia. If it were not for the casting of Streep, there would be very little reason to talk about this film ten years later.
The second Oscar that “The Iron Lady” won was for Best Makeup, which does make sense when looking at the transformative approach that the film takes with Streep’s depiction of Thatcher. The makeup and the hairstyling done on Streep is sublime, instantly making the actress look like the infamous politician throughout numerous decades of her life. Makeup is not only used to transform Streep into Thatcher but to show the politician aging and dealing with illness.
It would always be hard to find a way of depicting Margaret Thatcher that would please everyone. However, not enough is done to show the impact that Thatcher’s beliefs and political acts had on the working class. A big part of the problem with “The Iron Lady” is that the screenplay is too focused on Thatcher’s struggles with dementia. Not only does it feel inappropriate to tell a story around her diagnosis when she was still alive to see the film’s release, but it is not the primary aspect of her life that should be depicted on the big screen. It presents a framing narrative that can show sequences flash in a disjointed and out-of-order sequence. Still, it lacks the ability to judge the Thatcher that is on screen without a desperate sympathetic tone behind constantly reminding the audience of the present-day version. These sequences also took away from much of the runtime, which could have been dedicated to the political discussions hidden within the film.
“The Iron Lady” is at its strongest when it presents Thatcher’s different political viewpoints during her run in office. The brief snippets showing the riots that took place by the working class and her colleagues siding against her during the end of her time in office help highlight a viewpoint of Thatcher that many in the UK share today. However, with a short runtime of under two hours, it takes too long for the screenplay to get to the meat of the political situation as the story instead favors an almost sympathetic set-up for a character that many find hard to love. If the screenplay focused more on the political divide of Thatcher across all eleven years that she was in office, it might have made for a fascinating film worth discussing. Instead, the screenplay feels surface-level, almost afraid to dig into the details and paint the full story of the economic and political state of the United Kingdom in the 1980s.