Scandalous Movie Review: The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Produced by Damian Jones
Written by Abi Morgan
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher
Alexandra Roach as Margaret Thatcher (as a teenager)
Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher
Harry Lloyd as Young Denis Thatcher
Olivia Colman as Carol Thatcher
Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe
Nicholas Farrell as Airey Neave
Richard E. Grant as Michael Heseltine
Paul Bentley as Douglas Hurd
Robin Kermode as John Major
John Sessions as Edward Heath
Roger Allam as Gordon Reece
Michael Pennington as Michael Foot
Angus Wright as John Nott
Julian Wadham as Francis Pym
Ronald Reagan as Himself (archive footage)
Reginald Green as Ronald Reagan
My thoughts: One of the most famous actresses in the world (two-time Academy Award winner, record 16 nominations) playing one of the most famous female politicians in the world should be a win-win situation. Well yes and no. While I thoroughly enjoyed both Meryl Streep (and newcomer Alexandra Roach as the young Margaret Thatcher), I'm not sure how I feel about the film as a whole. I don't think I'm giving away any spoilers by saying that the film opens in the present day with the elderly Margaret Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher, mainly retired from public life. Her husband Denis (who died in 2003) is haunting or perhaps it would be better to say that Lady Thatcher now suffers from a form of dementia that leads her to see her long dead husband.
It is depressing and profoundly sad to see the woman who was both feared and admired in equal measure reduced to a sad, lonely figure clinging to the clothes of her deceased husband. It's almost as if the filmmakers felt that the audience wouldn't find Thatcher at all sympathetic otherwise. As if the scenes of the young Margaret Thatcher, trying to win her first election, dealing with not just the prejudices of her own party (she's the daughter of a grocer from Grantham in Lincolnshire) weren't enough. The film flashes back in forth from the present day (or something approximating it) and scenes from Margaret's life. We get to see glimpses of her father, Alfred Roberts, who seems to have been a profound influence on her. The brief glimpses that we see are fascinating, particularly the scene where she gets her acceptance letter from Oxford. Her father is ecstatic, her mother not so much, sort of sad and disapproving, as if Margaret is getting ideas above her station, as well as moving forward in a way that was never open to her.
The movie then flashes to her first stand for Parliament and her meeting with Denis Thatcher. There's no mention at all in the film that Thatcher was not only 10 years older than Margaret but divorced and a millionaire. He comes across as a well-meaning, very skinny young man who has no problem taking second fiddle to his wife. We see nothing of their courtship, just his proposal and a lovely scene of the two of them dancing in an empty room. In the present, it is revealed to the audience that Thatcher's relationship with her daughter Carol (Margaret had twins, Mark and Carol, she was nothing if not efficient. 2 children, one pregnancy) is slightly contentious. It's clear that of the twins, Thatcher preferred Mark (again it's never revealed in the film Mark Thatcher was a bit of a scoundrel).
Since the film spends so much time in the present day, Thatcher's life is sort of represented as a greatest hits reel. We see precious little of what is was like for a woman to be an MP in the late 50's through to the 70's. Far more fascinating to the filmmakers is her Eliza Doolittle transformation. Out go the hats, and the high-pitched voice (but the pearls stay), in comes the media training as Margaret is groomed to become a leading power in the Conservative party by two men, Airey Neave an MP from Northern Ireland and a strategist named Gordon Reece. For the most part, she comes across as the plucky underdog in the male-dominated establishment. She takes a licking but keeps on ticking. All of her male colleagues are eithe portrayed as clueless, male chauvinist pigs, or jealous. Meanwhile Denis comes across as a saint. There is only one hint of marital discord in the whole film (although it's amusingly played by Jim Broadbent).
The film only slighly gives the audience a sense of the personal toll that Thatcher's ambition took on her family, nor is she seen with any real friends among the Conservative party. She seems to have been a lone wolf, while the men are waiting with smiles on their faces, and knives behidn their backs, just waiting for the chance to use them. The film implies that she became drunk on her own power, and rode roughshod over anyone who opposed her or had another point of view which I'm sure was probably true. One critic felt that the film tries to portray her as a feminist icon which is ironic since Thatcher had no use for feminists. Her motto seems to have to just get on with it, and to not expect a handout from anyone, as she bulldozed her way to power. There's no complexity or depth in the film, although there are glimpses occasionally (the scenes with her father early in the film, driving away from her children to Westminster as they scream and cry).
I spent a great deal of time in London in the 1980's during the years that Thatcher was in power, so I had a small view of what it was like back then. I remember people calling her "Thatcher the Snatcher" and being asked to sign a petition, I think she had wanted to eliminate giving out milk to school children. I also remember a sketch on the satirical TV show Spitting Image. It was a spoof of The Care Bears called The Don't Care Bears and Margaret Thatcher was Careless Bear. One of the other bears asked her "Careless Bear, don't you care about anybody?" Careless Bear batted her eyes at the camera and replied, "Yes, myself." I wish the opposing views to Thatcher hadn't been just one lone Labor MP in the House, and disgruntled men in her cabinet in the film. Seriously were there no other women MP's we could have seen as a contrast? The film made it seem as if she were it.
Still the film is worth seeing for Meryl Streep who seemingly could play a paper bag and make it believable. Streep doesn't just play Margaret Thatcher, she becomes her. Never once, while I was watching the film, did I feel I was watching an actress. She manages to capture Thatcher's charm (at least with men) as well as the ruthlessness. It's just a pity that she's not in a better film. Jim Broadbent does the best with what he is given, but he's more of a Greek chorus than an actual human being. Although she only has a few moments of screen time, Olivia Colman manages to pack a lifetime of bitterness, resentment and love into her few scenes as Carol Thatcher. While I recognized many of the actors in the film, they seemed to be mainly talking heads, as the director just assumed that the audience knew exactly who they were and how they related to Thatcher.