The first major Hollywood effort to document Margaret Thatcher’s life made a strategic error. Instead of focusing on the “Iron Lady” kicking butt in the 1980s in the extremely male dominated arena of global politics, The Iron Lady instead chose to focus on Margaret’s mid-stage dementia with haphazard flashbacks to the major themes throughout her life. Casting the world’s greatest living actress, Meryl Streep, was a very wise decision but even she cannot make up for the dreadful script which spotlights the wrong era in the Prime Minister’s long and eventful life.
Margaret Thatcher was Great Britain’s first female Prime Minister when she entered 10 Downing St. in 1979. Her beginning as a grocer’s daughter, a rare female parliamentarian, and finally Conservative Party leader are briefly examined in the film, but only superficially. Instead, an older Thatcher putters around her apartment conversing with her dead husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent), and making statements which sound like she still considers herself Prime Minister. Think of a Ronald Reagan biopic; do you want to see Reagan as Governor, running for President, and meeting with Gorbachev or do you want to see Reagan in full blown dementia trying to remember his name?
Meryl Streep is a very convincing Margaret Thatcher. It makes quite a statement that an American actress was chosen over a native Brit but perhaps that is because the director, Phyllida Lloyd, also directed Streep in “Mamma Mia!.” She plays a younger Margaret just as well as she plays a stooped over and shuffling Margaret. For the audience, however, the film is just so much more intriguing to watch young Margaret develop her ideas about helping oneself vs. getting help from the government and responding appropriately to mainland threats (terrorism (IRA), etc.). Politically, there are quite a few parallels to current issues from Margaret’s 1980s platform of government austerity measures, deficit spending, and combating unemployment. Unfortunately, these policy vignettes are egregiously glossed over to hurry up and get back to another senile Margaret episode.
The Iron Lady takes advantage of various ways to emphasize the oddity of a female rising so high within the British government. There are a few montages where the zoomed-in camera pans across a line of dark suits and then abruptly stops when it hits an almost neon blue blouse and skirt. On Margaret’s first day in Parliament there is a very similar shot panning across uniformly black dress shoes until it halts on a pair of black and white heels. Margaret gets a few monologues in Parliament as she spars contentiously with opposition leaders and holds her own. Her best speech is in response to the Falkland Islands War and Britain’s decisive victory over Argentina. The 1982 war gets a few more minutes of screen time than her other major political moments, but it still feels rushed and choppy because by now the audience realizes the film does not want to be in the past, but wants to stay with Margaret in the present.
What a shame that Meryl Streep’s fascinating performance is wasted on such a lackluster script and meandering film. While I do not recommend The Iron Lady, I do not argue harshly against it exclusively due to Streep’s virtuoso performance. I recognize this film for what it is — a wasted opportunity to profile an interesting world leader who attracted the acting talent she warranted, but not the story.