“The Iron Lady” Is Safe On The Fence

Writer-director team Abi Morgan & Phyllida Lloyd tell Margaret Thatcher’s life story from a safe perch on the fence. The film features a dazzling performance from the brilliant Meryl Streep.

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When you’re conditioned to hate a political figure, a biographical re-run of said figure’s “highlights” is likely to cause contempt not attraction. When it comes to Margaret Thatcher, equally Great Britain’s most renowned yet infamous Prime Minister, a cinematic retelling of her life in office is more likely to see audiences tearing up their seats and lobbing bits of broken furniture at the screen.

So despised are her politics and her legacy in some quarters of society that the mere mention of paying to watch a film about her life is reason enough to lose a lifelong friend over the matter. But remind if I’m wrong – people weren’t criticised in the same way for seeing the acclaimed Oliver Hirschbiegel film Downfall, were they? And that was about Hitler! Perhaps, however, that is an indication of Thatcher’s standing in Great Britain. Or maybe we know what to expect when Hitler makes an appearance in mainstream cinema – we accept he will be the bad guy and the filmmakers duly oblige. The scariest proposition before seeing The Iron Lady is that it will dare to celebrate her reign in government.

That is perhaps both the film’s biggest “plus” and its most damning criticism. British director-writer team Phyllida Lloyd (most famous for bringing Mamma Mia to cinematic life) and Abi Morgan (who co-wrote the brilliant Shame) make the conscious decision to leave Thatcher’s politics and political decisions in the shade. For example, some of the most infamous moments during her career in office (the miners’ strikes, the battle with the trade unions, and the Brixton riots) are quickly ushered through with little more than a passing remark.

“The focus on the “Iron Lady” doing battle in a man’s world is a fascinating, relevant and important part of this infamous figure’s life, but it somewhat belittles her political and social legacy – for better and for poorer – that is still felt today. “

Instead, Lloyd and Morgan favour two clear themes. The first is the impact of old age in conjunction with the debilitating influence of dementia. In present day, we see Thatcher requiring the help of others, impinged by forgetfulness yet gaining solace from the vision of her dead husband Denis who acts as the springboard to reminiscences of her youth and time in office. The second key theme is how a woman rose to the most powerful position in Great Britain despite the dominance of her snobbish male peers and their unhealthy distrust of women in power.

Plaudits must be given for staging the film in this way. Thatcher’s struggles in old age bring a tangible relevance between the audience and this once very powerful figure. It also makes for a more interesting way of looking back, the retrospective story hinging on her amusing conversations with the ghost of her dead husband. Domesticity and the ordinary concerns of everyday life populate these moments (we meet the pair when they are talking about the rising price of a bottle of milk) and make for an unassuming precursor to the limelight of public life. For anyone who has known someone with dementia it will act as a blunt reminder of how life changes in old age, not only for the person suffering from the disease but also the loved ones caring for them. There is also the indication of this couple’s long love affair, spanning decades and many ups and downs, some of which, like the fateful bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, became very public knowledge. This is achieved in an understated way, exampling how this couple appear to have enjoyed an ordinary marriage under the constraints of extraordinary circumstances.

But this does, in many ways, romanticise the life of a public figure whose familial struggles and old-age forgetfulness will strike few emotional chords with those elements of British society still reeling from her politics. That Lloyd and Morgan prefer to sit on the fence, offering a few glimpses of Thatcher in office but preferring instead to present her every move as a courageous battle between one woman and a hundred men, will no doubt disappoint anyone expecting her to take a thrashing. One key, and controversial, event – the sinking of the Argentinean warship ARA General Belgrano – is presented, unsurprisingly, with Thatcher as the figurehead. Yet, the orchestration of the scene, with Thatcher perched over navy maps and documents, surrounded by her all-male counterparts and military advisers, enhances her battle to be accepted as a woman; so the event simply frames this, becoming nothing more than a backdrop.

Despite these misgivings few will begrudge Meryl Streep winning the Best Actress Academy Award for her interpretation of Thatcher but like the ex-Prime Minister herself, the film will undoubtedly divide audiences. Credit to director Lloyd and screenwriter Morgan for having the courage to bring this story to the screen in a way that is both interesting and moving. Of course, it doesn’t entirely work. The focus on the “Iron Lady” doing battle in a man’s world is a fascinating, relevant and important part of this infamous figure’s life, but it somewhat belittles her political and social legacy – for better and for poorer – that is still felt today.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

the-iron-lady_posterDirected by: Phyllida Lloyd
Written by: Abi Morgan
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant, Iain Glen, Olivia Colman

Released: 2011 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: UK / IMDB

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    Ni hao

    I’m just wondering: does this film really fall into the category of “comedy-drama”, because I don’t remember laughing too much when I watched it. I do recall that Dennis was regarded as bit of a bumbler when he was alive, but the movie kind of overlooked this fact.

    I may not be a Brit, but I do live in the outer reaches of what’s left of the Empire, and what I found interesting about this review
    was the observation that the film presented Thatcher’s “every move as a courageous battle between one woman and a hundred men” – mainly because we just had a similar experience down here in Oz, when our first female PM (Julia Gillard), a questionable reformist in her own right, pretty much got shafted by the boys-own male culture that dominates a good part of Australia’s mind set.

    Personally I thought Ms Gillard brought much of her eventual grief upon herself. But unlike Thatcher, she did not have to constantly watch her back when it came to the Murdoch press. No doubt Rupert found an ally in Maggie back in the mid 1980s when he took on the trade unions during the Wapping dispute, and this favour was somehow recipricated with an editorial policy of silence. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Australia’s first “iron lady”, whose policies and actions were constatntly under fire from our national broadsheet.

    In other words, when it came to dealing with a white male dominated hegenomy, Thatcher had it pretty easy. Having said this, however, it’s arguable that her ability to stand up to the boys is not enough to fully vindicate her. Regardless of what the jury might say about her efforts to reform the British economy, she was still an apologist for Pinochet; plus she was a big fan of the Reagan administration, which clandestinely funded terrorist death squads in Central America, sold weapons to Iran and pretended it was friends with Saddam.

    Given this, I now hope Lloyd and Morgan return to musicals and don’t make a film about Tony Blair.

  2. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Damn, I’d forgotten about this film. I still have to watch it!!! Thanks for the reminder, Dan!

    (now, where did I put that DVD rental voucher again….)

  3. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    I’m not familiar enough with Thatcher’s politics to be up in arms about a biopic, but I’m glad to hear that this film focuses more on the person than her unpopular decisions. I’ve heard very mixed reviews of this movie to date, so I’ve been dragging my feet a bit on seeing it. Meryl Streep normally doesn’t disappoint at least.

  4. Avatar
    ruth Reply

    Great review Dan! I happened to catch this on the plane and I felt the same way that I didn’t really learn much about Thatcher the politician, as it focused way too much on her being ‘haunted’ by her dead husband. I thought Meryl was just ok as the famous PM, I did not think she deserved her Oscar and I’m more convinced of that now.

  5. Avatar
    Lights Camera Reaction Reply

    I know nothing about politics, so I found The Iron Lady really interesting. Streep is fantastic in it, she easily makes my lineup for that year.
    I don’t love Meryl Streep as much as everyone else, but it doesn’t bother me that she won the oscar for it.

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