Review: The Iron Lady

Written by Ben Duckworth on 4 January 2012 in Culture
Ben Duckworth reviews a gold-plated impression of the first lady of British politics by Meryl Streep

This article is from the January issue of Total Politics

Some former prime ministers appear more mortal than others. Margaret Thatcher appears to be the most immortal of all. The icon has lasted much longer than the lady herself spent in No 10. Baroness Thatcher may be old and physically frail, but her looming presence in British politics remains unsurpassed for both allies and enemies. Now, in a blast of publicity, Meryl Streep – Hollywood, rather than political, royalty – has transformed herself into the grocer’s daughter from Grantham who chose to see every day as a battle to be won.

The Iron Lady is a wild, colourful, fast-paced swoosh through a career that transformed its eponymous character from determined election candidate to scarred leader. Arrive at the cinema in the mood to be entertained rather than informed, and you will enjoy this. The filmmakers want the audience to root for a character who makes it to the top through her own bloody-minded determination.

The moment of triumph for the voice coach, “Denis!”, the decision to sink the Belgrano − there are red-meat moments for all Thatcher supporters. For those who weren’t, popcorn boxes will be crushed with anger and frustration at a sympathetic portrait of a divisive PM. For one veteran left-wing journalist in the screening Total Politics attended, it was overwhelming: he was shouting at the screen halfway through.

The heavy focus on Thatcher’s dementia will cause right-wingers problems, too. She hallucinates continually about her late husband, and her existence in an empty house with a few staff and goofy daughter Carol leaves little room for a dignified image of a retired, three-election-winning political colossus. This Thatcher can still be sharp in brief moments – as at a dinner party – but she spends her time reliving her life in semi-darkened rooms, alone. She fails to remember that her son Mark can’t come to Britain to visit her. Sneaking to the shop to buy a pint of milk, which she uses for tea with her late husband, a hallucination, simply shows she is baffled by modern British life.

If you’re expecting to get to know more about the characters surrounding Thatcher who were close to her – Keith Joseph and Norman Tebbit, to name two – you will be disappointed. Michael Heseltine is played with heavy oiliness by Richard E Grant, while Geoffrey Howe is most prominently featured. The audience watches him suffer his humiliations that boil over into his resignation. Members of Thatcher’s cabinet, both allies and hated ‘wets’, have expressed surprise at not being consulted for the film. But The Iron Lady is not about them.  

Streep does a fantastic job of mimicking the way Thatcher moved her chin forward at a slight angle. The eyes have it, too. The hair is magnificent, the voice almost perfect. The sexism that Thatcher faced to be selected as a candidate, her ignored position at the end of the cabinet table when education secretary under a droning Edward Heath, force you to admire this screen Thatcher. Who deals quickest with the early 1970s’ blackout in No 10, as Heath-ites fumble? Who, alone among her cabinet, knows the price of Lurpak? ‘The housewife’ on the side of those who want to get on does. Her colleagues fail to match her.

This is a film about a personal transformation. A dippy, determined young girl from an unexceptional background, driven on by her father, faces snobby, sexist selection committees, makes it to Parliament and into the cabinet. She then faces snobby, sexist, cabinet colleagues, and her own weaknesses, and becomes the Iron Lady.

Looking back on past glories, an old, forgetful, vulnerable lady has much to be proud of, even if she is now sitting by herself, dreadfully missing her husband. Told like that, this film points out, Margaret Thatcher heads for a softer public image. Politically, that will take a little while longer.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent and Richard E Grant. Released in cinemas 6 January

Tags: Issue 43, Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

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