The Iron Lady

By Gareth Negus

With yet another election looming in the next few weeks, we’re revisiting Gareth Negus’s review of the Margaret Thatcher biopic from 2011. Whatever you may think of the present incumbent, you’d never catch Thatch looking awkward while eating chips out of a cone. 

My earliest political memory dates to 1979, and my parents’ moans that “that dreadful woman has got in.” The dreadful woman was, of course, Margaret Thatcher, the so-called Iron Lady, who was to dominate the next decade of British politics.

The Iron Lady is not the first time Thatcher has been portrayed on screen. The earliest occasion I can recall was a Granada docudrama about her final days, starring Sylvia Syms, filmed not long after the events in question. It was most controversial at the time for showing John Selwyn Gummer crying as he told Margaret it was time for her to resign, something the man himself indignantly denied ever happened. More recently, Andrea Riseborough played the young Margaret Roberts in BBC Four’s version of her early life, The Long Walk to Finchley.

The Iron Lady takes episodes from both ends of her political career, along with large chunks of the middle; opening with an elderly Thatcher slipping away from her minders to pop out for a pint of milk, she spends much of her time talking to her husband, who has been dead for some years.

It’s impossible to watch this film, at least if you’re from the UK and over 30, without bringing some emotional baggage to it. As a biopic of one of the most loathed Western politicians in living memory, who is nevertheless revered by plenty, it gives itself the difficult task of attempting to present Baroness Thatcher as an individual and leave us to judge her legacy. It’s tough to claim that director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan’s work really comes close to pulling that off, but the reviews I would be most interested to read would be from those too young to remember her reign. Would they grasp just what a divisive figure she was (and is) in the UK? Would they be fully aware of the extent of the IRA’s terror campaign, or what those people in the news footage (which is irritatingly stretched to fit the wide screen throughout the film) are rioting about?

I’m not sure they would. The film certainly makes clear that a lot of people in the UK were very cross indeed, though doesn’t really distinguish between the race riots of the early 80s and the later demonstrations against the poll tax. Still, I’m sure everyone can agree on the brilliance of Meryl Streep’s work – it’s not just a bang-on imitation (though it’s that too) but a performance that makes you forget the make up. One has to assume the Oscar nomination is in the bag, given how the Academy loves handing out prizes for playing real people. (I wonder if it will be so readily accepted among BAFTA voters.)

The other performances are a mixed bag. Relatively few people have a clear image of Dennis Thatcher; Jim Broadbent’s work reminded me strongly of his role in Iris (a film which The Iron Lady resembles in several ways), another husband required to play second fiddle. Maggie’s cabinet members are impersonated with varying degrees of success; Richard E Grant has the Heseltine hair but not Tarzan’s voice or manner, whereas Anthony Head is very good as Geoffrey Howe. Others variously prompt sudden flashbacks (though sometimes to their Spitting Image puppets) when you realise who they’re supposed to be, or bafflement when you don’t. Elsewhere, the standouts are Oliva Colman as Carol Thatcher, and Alexandra Roach as the young Margaret – lacking the extensive footage of Thatcher from which Streep could draw, she successfully evokes a younger, less certain figure who is manifestly the same character.

The film’s determination to look at Thatcher the human being rather than the politician does mean that the study of her policies, and their consequences, is rather shortchanged. Exchanges about the economic situation, during which lily-livered cabinet members exhort Mrs T to soften her cuts to avoid hurting the vulnerable, are clearly designed to have viewers nodding thoughtfully as they recognise current parallels. In other cases – it’s particularly ham-fisted in the Falklands War scenes – two characters will recite opposing viewpoints, like a BBC news report that’s nervously determined to be completely even-handed.

And, really, where’s the drama in that? The film does not pretend to be a study of Thatcherism and its legacy, which might have been worth seeing. It is not about a young woman’s determination to run for office, shattering glass ceilings along the way, which is certainly a story worth telling; nor is about a leader’s fall from grace, which could also have worked (you could make it a double bill with Downfall). It’s strictly a beginner’s guide to Maggie, and though certainly a fine acting showcase, is no more memorable than that sounds.

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