From the pen of Abi Morgan (Shame) and director Phyllida Lloyd (Mama Mia!), comes The Iron Lady; a biopic of Margaret Thatcher’s political career from humble shopkeeper’s daughter to breaking ground as Britain’s first female prime minister. Set over the course of 24 hours in 2008, an aged Thatcher (Meryl Streep) reminisces on her life in (surprisingly) sequential order. In between flashbacks, she struggles with the early stages of dementia and shares chitter chatter with her dead husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent) much to the grief of her daughter, Carol Thatcher (Olivia Colman).
This constant jumping back and forth between past and present is one of the bigger problems with The Iron Lady. It can’t decide whether it wants to show us how Thatcher broke through the glass ceiling of politics or how dementia can shake a family to its core regardless of social status. And quite frankly, it fails at both.
The biography sections are patchy at best. Seemingly sacrificed for the dementia subplot (more of which later). Some things happen that are never truly expanded on. At first this is just little things like her mother’s resentment at her going to university and Thatcher’s change in dialect upon reaching university. As the film progresses, these events become a tad more significant… Like, say, the bombing at the Grand Hotel which the Thatchers were caught in and that little event with Argentina, the Falklands War, which becomes a two minute montage followed by Thatcher popping champagne with her cabinet. Good job team! It’s wholly unsatisfying to say the least. All one liners that serve to do nothing but signpost that we’ve moved on a few years. ‘Eee, father, I won me a place in Oxford, by gum’.
So what off the dementia story-line? Well, it’s a strange framing device and subplot that feels ill judged from the get go. Using mental illness to garner sympathy immediately give the impression that there’s nothing redeemable about your subject to begin with. As Margaret runs through her flat chasing after the memories of her two children, there’s something decidedly uncomfortable about it all.
This is further compounded with the ghost of Thatcher past, Dennis. We can almost forgive the cliché of having Thatcher talking to her dead husband and we will let it slide somewhat that he wears white like a reject from Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, however, the rest just simply reeks of exploitation. As Thatcher progresses through her evening’s reminiscing, Dennis pops up like a parental Jacob Marley in a party hat lecturing that ‘You can rewind it, but you can’t change it’. The Marley comparisons continue as Dennis begins to mock Thatcher on her life choices, pointing fingers and dripping with insincerity. Quite what Morgan was thinking when he chose to embody Thatcher’s self-hate in the body of her long dead husband is unclear. It all feels icky.
In the end, the framing device overtakes the biography and becomes the main focus of the film. The resolution of which is almost laughable as SPOILER ALERT it’s very inclusion symbolises the overcoming of grief but also that somehow dementia is something you just shrug off and get on with.
I guess we should say something about Streep’s Oscar winning performance. Well, here goes. She really does sound like Thatcher, but then so does a Spitting Image puppet. This critic does not see the difference between this impersonation and Michelle William’s breathy Marilyn Monroe. Both are spot on and neither are anything more than putting on a voice. We feel nothing for Thatcher as she is nothing more than a caricature of a shadow. However, Carol Thatcher played by Olivia Colman has more subtlety than any of Streep’s ‘Ooh, I’m going a bit potty, I can’t remember my own name! Crumbs’ schtick. Watch has she hides her tears having to explain to her mother, not for the first time, that her father is dead. With this and Tyrannosaur, we’d happily put Colman in our hall of fame… if we had one.
Both the Thatcher children have called The Iron Lady ‘a left wing fantasy’ which it isn’t. Neither is it a right-wing wet dream. It’s a confused picture with no real foundations that fails to rise above anything more than an afternoon TV play of the day. As Dennis foretold, ‘You can rewind it, but you can’t change it’.