‘The Iron Lady’ movie review: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

A few days ago, Meryl Streep took home an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in director Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady; out of her record seventeen nominations, however, this is perhaps the least deserving. Not because the movie is a mess (though it is) but because this is a particularly bland and passionless role that fails to capture the essence of the iconic politician.

Most of the problem lies in the script (by Shame co-writer Abi Morgan), which over-condenses the entire life of the former Prime Minister into a rat-a-tat best-of checklist (and, inexplicably, completely fails to explore her mythos and controversy), and the direction by Lloyd, who cuts back and forth and sideways with little storytelling flair.

I’m not so sure what the intent was here. What seems to be more than half of the film consists of present-day scenes of an elderly Thatcher battling dementia, demonstrated by endless amounts of small talk with the ghost of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). We know Denis is dead from the outset, but it nevertheless feels like monumentally poor-taste Sixth Sense/Beautiful Mind-like ‘twist’. I think that’s because in the first scene with Denis, his non-existence is revealed as a twist.

In any event, what should be the expected (but utterly conventional) biopic looking-back framework is expanded into more than half of the film. This could have been an affecting look at dementia, but only in another film, which wasn’t bound to telling Margaret Thatcher’s life story.

But suddenly, we’re swept into that life story: working class upbringing, small business father, Oxford education, marriage, family, career. Oh, she’s suddenly in politics. Parliament, Education Secretary, Prime Minister. Labor unions, IRA, taxes, Falklands, Reagan. All name-dropped without the slightest amount of investigation. It’s incredibly wearying.

This is the point where I tell you that despite all the storytelling problems, The Iron Lady is an especially well-intentioned and well-made film. Well-intentioned it may be; well-made it is not. This thing is hacked to pieces by a filmmaker who seems to have only just discovered the process of editing, and filled with over-indulgent slo-mo, close-ups, Dutch tilts, handheld camerawork, zoom-ins, and more.

See the Falklands sequence, which includes all these indulgences and actually crops and stretches authentic 4:3 war footage to fit the 2.35:1 frame, for the most egregious filmmaking faux-pas. It all makes Mamma Mia, the director’s previous film, seem restrained in comparison.

An eclectic cast of British thespians – including Iain Glen, Roger Allam, and Richard E. Grant – swarms about Streep in search of something to do. An unrecognizable Olivia Colman plays Thatcher’s daughter; Alexandra Roach portrays the young Margaret Thatcher with a flare that is sorely lacking from Streep’s performance.

The film certainly captures the look of Thatcher, however: Streep doesn’t really resemble her physically, but a prodigious amount of makeup has been applied, and she has the voice and mannerisms down. And the outfits. She’s a walking, talking Madame Tussauds wax figure. The makeup deservedly won an Oscar; the old-age prosthetics in present day scenes is remarkable, especially compared to similar work in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.

The Iron Lady bears other similarities to J. Edgar (unreleased, theatrically, in the Czech Republic), too: both are about controversial figures in their respective countries, both have been filmed with similar biopic techniques. 

But while the ambivalent attitude towards Hoover in Eastwood’s film left me a little cold (but still admiring), it’s miles ahead of this portrait of Margaret Thatcher, which fails to form any kind of perspective. I feel like I know less about the Iron Lady now than when I went into the film.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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