Meryl Streep was awarded an Oscar for her performance as Margaret Thatcher, and on watching The Iron Lady it is clear why.
Her take on the formidable first female British Prime Minister is nothing short of brilliant. I’m not talking about portraying her just in the heyday of her parliamentary strength, but especially as the frail, failing old woman “MT” became.
Opposite Meryl is Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher. I don’t doubt Jim’s acting ability however when up against such a fantastic performance he neither looked (not that important I guess), sounded, or acted much like the Denis Thatcher I remember. I guess that’s the issue when playing real people. For me Jim Broadbent is a lot like Sean Connery in the acting world. Sean is always on point, but he simply plays Sean Connery. Broadbent comes across the same to me every time. (I was going to use Hugh Grant in that comparison, but that’s not fair on Jim – though you do get the idea.)
Now that is out the way, what of the film itself? Well it begins with an elderly Thatcher fumbling for change as she attempts to buy milk from a corner shop. She seems out of sorts, and entirely out-of-place. It doesn’t take long before we discover that she had ‘escaped’ from her home and is quite unwell in terms of mental health. Soon after we see her talking to her husband Denis and it is quickly apparent that Denis died in 2003. This is 8 years later.
The film then spends the rest of its time flitting between memories, confusion and present day. The film’s structure is confused repeatedly showing events in her present day trigger memories of the past and soon we share those memories. Rather than coming across as “Tarantino-esque” what this does is share the confusion and provide the viewer with a connection to the sometimes shambling, and upsetting aspects of daily life for Lady Thatcher.
Over sixty years pass in this film, though not especially in chronological order. All key elements of Lady Thatcher’s life are here: Her first Election to Downing Street, Miner’s Strikes, the Falklands War, Poll Tax riots and the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton. As interesting as the historical pieces are it is the present-day scenes that offer the most gravitas. They are very sad at times, and show us how even though she was a formidable, and hated figure in many circles during her career she now appears lonely yet not alone (she has her aides and family) and her health has deteriorated greatly. It is difficult not to feel great sympathy as you watch.
No matter your political views this grocer’s daughter put so much at stake when she entered the conventional male world of British politics in the late 1950s (Harry Lloyd and Alexandra Roach are also great as the young couple). When Thatcher arrives at the House of Commons for the first time after being elected MP for Finchley in 1959, there’s a fantastic overhead shot of her hat bobbing alone in a screen full of half-bald heads. I wasn’t familiar with director Phyllida Lloyd at all. But this is probably as she is only known for the phenomenally successful karaoke film Mamma Mia that I haven’t seen. Maybe I should watch it on the strength of The Iron Lady, but I can’t help think that subject matter and screenwriting has a lot to do with my enjoyment of a film also.
The story of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, the story of her strength and decision-making, and then of her political and physical decline are all-absorbing and make for a fascinating watch. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a historical documentary style film. The real story that stayed with me after it had finished was the glimpse into the private and saddening reality of getting old; loss, and heartache over the death of loved ones. No matter who we are in life and what we achieve, the problem of ageing (and ultimately death) comes to us all.
I will end as I began though; Meryl Streep’s performance here is astounding and The Iron Lady is worth watching for that alone.