Review: The Iron Lady

In the last hundred years of British history, I cannot think of a more controversial figure than ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Undoubtedly the marmite of the political world, her story, whatever your views on her are, is a fascinating one, and on hearing that a new film headed by Meryl Streep was being made on the subject, I was quite excited.

The first thing that I should say is that I want to leave my own political beliefs out of this review, as I think that one of the main things that can be said in the film’s favour is that it attempts quite successfully to produce a balanced viewpoint on the lady herself – whether avid Conservative or ardent Socialist, the film doesn’t alienate anyone in terms of giving a biased stance on Thatcher.

The other remarkable thing to note about this film is the strength of the performances, particularly from our leading lady. Despite seeming to be a somewhat odd choice to play Thatcher, the make-up department, hair stylists and costume designers have done wonders to transform Streep’s appearance, and her accent is scarily authentic. She has her own role nailed, and receives great support from the ever reliable Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis and Olivia Colman as her daughter Carol.

I’m afraid that’s where the positives end. The biggest problem that this film has is that it somehow manages to take one of the most fascinating, controversial political figureheads of our time and produce something that curiously isn’t very compelling. Half of the film is devoted to an imagined sequence of scenes exploring the kind of person that Thatcher might now have become in the present day, and the sort of life she leads. On paper, that sounds like an interesting (if risky) idea, and it saddens me to say that the risk definitely hasn’t paid off. Despite the wonderful acting, the script is clunky and clichéd, and these scenes are contrived, soapy and sentimental.

The result of so much screen time being devoted to this flawed section in the present day inevitably means that the really meaty part of the film – the exploration of the life of Thatcher from being a young girl to resigning as prime minister in 1990 – is rushed and lacks any kind of depth. The pacing of these scenes is more akin to screenwriters simply ticking off items on a list rather than exploring them in any particularly dramatic way. Instead, we are given a series of brief, bordering on anecdotal accounts of the major events during Thatcher’s political journey, and partly to make up for the lack of screen time available to explore them, the script here often consists of toe-curling monologues placed in the most inappropriate places and infantile, oversimplified dialogue.

Incidentally, it came as no surprise to me after seeing the film to learn that its director, Phyllida Lloyd, is most celebrated for her work in theatre. I feel that many of the narrative techniques employed in the present day scenes are more suited for a theatre production, where they might have been more successful. Employing them with very little adjustment for a piece of cinema simply lends these scenes a disconcerting superficiality which, unfortunately, is irritatingly hard to ignore.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. I thoroughly accept that depth will always have to be sacrificed to some degree in a historical film, but the sacrifices here are damaging and even unnecessary, considering the material that Lloyd has devoted the rest of the film to in exchange for it. However, despite the fact that the movie is flawed and disappointing in terms of what it had the potential to be, the performances almost make up for it; I predict yet another Oscar nomination for Streep will be waiting for her a little later this year. For that reason, I can argue that The Iron Lady is at least worth seeing.

Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (January ’11)