Playing both the staunch human battleship and the diminished old woman sifting through her past, Meryl Streep is riveting in The Iron Lady. Her physical and verbal mimicry are uncanny, but her embodiment of an indomitable, uniquely British spirit perhaps even more so. The performance provides this engrossing if somewhat deferential biopic of Margaret Thatcher with a richly conflicted center that befits one of the most divisive figures in 20th century politics.
With less complexity or cleverness, the film follows in the footsteps of Stephen Frears’ 2006 The Queen, another intimate portrait of a British head of state. Scripted by Abi Morgan (Shame) and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady digs more incisively into character than context.
Just as Thatcher continues to have passionate champions and detractors more than two decades after the end of her eventful 11½-year tenure as U.K. Prime Minister, the film stands to split audiences. Some will likely admire its even-handedness while others may find its point of view timid and mollifying, shaped less by objective detachment than by the distorting lens of compassion.
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It’s a standard and probably silly assumption that any release skewing toward the specialty end of the theatrical market will take a liberal position. That seems even more of a given when the subject is an archconservative who reshaped Britain and was a galvanizing force on the world political stage. But the film goes to considerable pains to fudge its point of view.
Whether you see this as a shrewd move or a cop-out, the filmmakers have played it both ways, allowing Thatcher to be read as either a towering leader or a bullying monster, depending on your politics. Accessing the central character as an enfeebled, lonely widow grappling with an unreliable memory is a sure way to blur the picture. That means fears among Tory prognosticators in Britain that this was going to be a hatchet job prove largely unfounded.
Instead, it’s a humanizing, at times touchingly sentimental drama, its most persuasive moments often outside the political arena. The keynote of vulnerability is struck from the opening scene in which Thatcher, in her 80s, alarms her security detail by tottering off unsupervised to the local shop for milk. Only after a boiled egg breakfast with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) does it become clear that Margaret has been a widow for many years.
Those imagined conversations with the ghost of Denis — a chortling, playful old codger in Broadbent’s endearing performance — establish a poignant us-and-them dynamic that ponders the solitary fog of old age. Streep is masterful at showing the internal battle between failing mental faculties and a refusal to relinquish dignity and command, yielding moments in which the confused elderly Thatcher appears convinced she is still the P.M. The mettle of her glory years resurfaces when the hallucinations of Denis begin threatening her lucidity, prompting an attempt to banish him from her mind.
The framing action takes place around the time of the 2005 London terrorist attacks, and Morgan’s script deftly uses present-day triggers to summon flashbacks. These skip through Margaret’s youth as a grocer’s daughter (played with pluck and intelligence by Alexandra Roach), inheriting an early interest in politics from her father; her Oxford years and courtship by young businessman Denis (Harry Lloyd); her determined first foot in the door of the boys’ club of conservative politics; and her 1959 entry into Parliament.
But the dramatic core is the rollercoaster of the 1980s, when Thatcher’s policies forged a new Britain out of financial deregulation, mass privatization, decreased public-service spending and the hobbling of the trade unions. With extensive use of news clips, the film touches on the widespread protests, the poll tax riots, the miners’ strike, the IRA bombings; it also alludes to soaring unemployment, the collapse in national industrial output and the widening gap between Britain’s new class of millionaires and its rapidly expanding poor.
But the real meat of that story is covered in such whirlwind fashion — reducing Thatcher’s opposition to angry background rabble — that the film sacrifices its big-picture impact. Thatcher’s quasi-romantic political kinship with Ronald Reagan is distilled to a quick visual of them waltzing at an official ceremony. Considering how widely financial pundits have connected the dots between policies of that era and the world’s current economic chaos, The Iron Lady seems coy in its reluctance to make harder-hitting, more provocative points. It’s not quite toothless, but definitely a soft-focus portrait.
While some of the key episodes have an unintended campy feel (a stone-faced Maggie growling “Sink it,” about the Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands Conflict), a handful of terrific scenes do provide insightful glimpses into those tumultuous years.
As trusted political advisers, Roger Allam and Nicholas Farrell are priceless as they groom Thatcher for the party leadership, diplomatically considering areas in need of a makeover. Richard E. Grant exudes twitchy antagonism as Michael Heseltine during a tense encounter when the ferment in Thatcher’s ranks becomes evident. And Streep’s magnificent fury is electrifying opposite the shocked humiliation of Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe (an excellent Anthony Head) during a sharp rebuke in a cabinet meeting that led to his resignation and precipitated her downfall.
A distinguished stage director, Lloyd’s first feature, Mamma Mia!, showed only a rudimentary grasp of filmmaking craft, not that anyone seemed to care. This time out, her work is far more polished. Cinematographer Elliott Davis strikes the right visual note of somber formality, while editor Justine Wright fluidly integrates contemporary scenes with flashbacks, archival footage and home movies. Thomas Newman’s score shifts effectively between minor-key moods and bombastic authority.
If Thatcher the politician remains a somewhat intransigent and monumental figure, Morgan’s script is perceptive in examining her as a woman claiming uncharted territory. “I have always preferred the company of men,” she remarks casually while entering a male-dominated dinner party. That statement reverberates in her fearlessness among lions, her impatience with weakness and even in the imbalance of her affections for her twin children. The grownup Carol (Olivia Colman) is a fussy, well-meaning presence treated by Margaret with fond cordiality, while the absence of her son Mark in South Africa is a source of piercing sorrow.
It’s in the pathos of the fragile 21st century figure rather the power of her former self that The Iron Lady impresses. And while it seems fair to quibble that the film’s approach makes the title something of a misnomer, Streep’s meticulously calibrated work gives it unexpected emotional resonance.
Opens: Dec. 30 (Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: DJ Films, Pathe, Film 4, UK Film Council
Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Olivia Colman, Roger Allam, Susan Brown, Nick Dunning, Nicholas Farrell, Iain Glen, Richard E. Grant, Anthony Head, Michael Maloney, Pip Torrens, Julian Wadham, Angus Wright
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan
Producer: Damian Jones
Executive producers: Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Tessa Ross, Adam Kulick
Co-producers: Anita Overland, Colleen Woodcock
Director of photography: Elliott Davis
Production designer: Simon Elliott
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Justine Wright
Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.