Margaret Thatcher is, and always will be, a controversial figure. In her time it was unheard of for a woman to climb the political ladder, let alone to reach the top and remain in power for as long as she did. Never one for deferring to tradition, she spent her time in office changing society as she deemed fit, with her ruthless, self-assured nature losing voters, friends and colleagues along the way.
To most people, this would be an excellent conceit for a straightforward, politically charged biopic. However, in the eyes of director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan, it simply wasn’t enough. Keen to uncover the true Margaret Thatcher, the duo have instead opted to focus on her humanity, allowing the politics to act as a catalyst for the key moments in her personal life.
Brave, right? But is it successful? Well, yes, in that it’s intermittently compelling and on the whole affecting. However, the more you scratch the surface the more noticeable the holes become, leaving you suspicious that most of what is being shown post-Thatcher’s reign is assumed rather than concrete fact. It’s not that Morgan’s screenplay doesn’t provide an interesting take on the lady, it’s that the telling isn’t as fruitful or coherent as you may expect from such a dynamic and acclaimed writer.
In some ways, the same can be said for Lloyd’s direction. Having hit the big time with the schmoozy musical affair that was Mamma Mia!, Lloyd’s elevation to presenting dramatic material seems to have come too fast and with too many shortcuts. Amalgamating several different styles – from kitchen sink drama to the pseudo-documentary – Lloyd is somewhat out of her depth, unsure of which style best suits her colleague’s efforts.
Much of how this story is presented – direction, editing and soundtrack – appears to have been pieced together from other films in the vein of The King’s Speech and The Queen. Distracting as this is, credit must be given to the sheer bravado involved in bucking convention and making such a potentially embarrassing biopic of a subject who is still very much alive.
Covering many of the emerging cracks, Meryl Streep’s almost earth-shudderingly accurate performance as Thatcher in her prime is flawless. Almost unrecognisable, she inhabits the role with every scowl, grimace and mischievous smile. She’s simply that good. Fortunately, Alexandra Roach is almost as distinguished in her turn as the youthful Margaret, believable in her partnership with Streep.
Jim Broadbent makes the secondary role of Dennis Thatcher his own, infusing elements of humour, tenderness and compassion into a man so overshadowed, yet integral to Thatcher’s life. However, the dynamic between the older and younger representations of the character is not nearly as convincing as that of Streep and Roach. Harry Lloyd’s performance is unremarkable, never gelling with Broadbent’s masterful interpretation. Meanwhile, Anthony Stewart Head, Richard E. Grant and Roger Allam are the pick of the above-average supporting cast, each as memorable as the other.
The Iron Lady is a coercive if slightly vague portrait of the controversial woman, defiantly avoiding the political focus so often embraced. Streep, alongside a well-rounded cast, elevates this above its potential to be a mediocre mash-up of well trodden tropes, resulting in a film that’s well worth the hype, albeit in a less than conventional manner.