It’s set to become one of the biggest films of the year, with a leading lady performance tipped for Oscar glory, but it’s difficult to sum up exactly what The Iron Lady is like. The Margaret Thatcher story was never going to be an easy one to tell, and this film did begin life as a ‘week in the life of’ based around the Falklands, before fleshing out into more of a biopic. Then again, as I use the word biopic I hesitate, for the history of the woman herself is not exactly given a comprehensive analysis. Instead, director Phyllida Lloyd has chosen to base the film on the imagined current day suffering of dementia which keeps Thatcher locked away in her Belgravia home. Day to day sounds and conversations, events and TV news flashes throw the 85 year old back into random vignettes from her long life as one of the most famous and divisive politicians of the 20th century. And, her imagined manifestation of deceased husband Denis is at her side for most of the current day setting; provoking, narrating, even clowning. It’s certainly a lot to take in.
It seems a great liberty for Lloyd to make a fictionalised account of Thatcher’s mental decline and make it count for almost half of the film. On the other hand, it is an eye opener to the disease itself, and I imagined instantly that it will profoundly touch anyone whose family has been affected by the disease; this is even before mentioning the elements of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy it evokes. In the beginning the issue was treated well: the mention of an upcoming Rogers and Hammerstein concert instantly transported Thatcher to her post-war youth when she first met Dennis. In this sense, dementia became a crafty plot device for the director to present isolated flashbacks in a biopic which would never have had time to tell the whole story. However, as it went on there were points where these links became less impressive and more contrived. When Thatcher accidentally stumbles on top of a bronze soldier statuette, it’s the cue for her to remember sinking the Belgrano – at this, the word that came to my mind was ‘sloppy’.
On the subject of style, it’s also worth noting that this is a movie told exclusively from Thatcher’s mind, so you can be rest assured you’re only getting her side of things. Sound bites and newsreels remind us of the headlines and public opinions which we already know so well. That is if you know them so well. You’d have to have a good memory (or in the case of anyone under 25, a good understanding) of 1980s Britain to keep up with the narrative at ease. And yet, if you are something of a history buff, you’ll feel a little short changed. Fair enough, the Falklands are given a decent enough explanation when that moment appears, but the IRA bombings – in particular, the Brighton bomb of 1984 – are featured fairly prominently, without explanation, and without any words on the issue spoken by Thatcher herself. Another weak point was that footage of the 1981 riots, the miner’s strikes, and the 10p tax protests were all used interchangeably to represent social chaos, without either of the three being discussed or explained. The film does focus more on Thatcher the woman, therefore the politics is relevant only when it is relevant to her personally – such as her very sudden and unexpected usurping from within her own party. It’s also Lloyd’s way of making sure this film doesn’t have a political slant, and as someone who professes to be ‘on the other side’ to Mrs T, she does a good job of being unbiased.
The final thing to discuss – and it’s largely inevitable – is Meryl Streep. Whatever you think of the film, its script or even Thatcher herself, Streep is every bit as exceptional as has been anticipated and reported since pre-production began. I would hesitate to use the phrase ‘performance of a lifetime’ for a woman with the back catalogue like hers, but it is certainly a piece which will stand prominently in her oeuvre. Will she win the Oscar? If there’s any justice then it should already be hers (the simple equation of a biopic plus a mental illness is enough to assure this triumph). And yet, it’s not Thatcher’s iconic persona that made this role a winner for Streep – it’s Streep’s talent that makes this entire film. And, as much as her performance is an impeccable impersonation of one of the most famous women in the world (helped greatly by an uncanny makeover), it is also a remarkable portrayal of an elderly woman with dementia; deprived of all the skills, power and familial love that she once cherished. If Streep had been playing a complete unknown suffering in this state, she would deserve similar recognition; and that’s the real bonus of this performance.
The Iron Lady is in cinemas everywhere now.