At a glance, The Iron Lady looks like the kind of film that could sweep this year’s Oscars. It’s got Meryl Streep, who gets nominated for best actress just for getting out of bed in the morning, as Margaret Thatcher, possibly the most contentious Prime Minister England has ever had. Streep is surrounded by a supporting cast full of British thesps (Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, Olivia Colman), and there’s nothing the Academy loves more than to add a healthy dose of Britishness to proceedings every year. And much like Academy favourites The Queen and The King’s Speech before it, The Iron Lady concerns itself with a well-known figure from Britain’s past (or, if you prefer, Britain’s present, as Thatcher is obviously still alive).
A clean sweep at the Oscars is unlikely though. The Iron Lady shows a senile Thatcher trying to come to terms with the death of her husband as she recalls the events that shaped her life and political career. The film, however, can’t get away from the fact that Thatcher, whether it’s in real life or on the big screen, is a completely unlikeable figure. The film fails to play to its strengths and never really engages the viewer.
The British won’t be coming this year…
The film is all about Streep and her performance as Thatcher. She completely inhabits the role. Her portrayal of a frail and powerless Thatcher is completely at odds with the image of the ‘Iron Lady’ that people remember. It almost makes you sympathise with her. Almost.
Aside from Streep’s inevitably strong performance, there is the relationship between Thatcher and her husband Denis (Broadbent). Throughout the film she sees him everywhere and talks to him, even though he has been dead for years. The sadness she feels over his death is the emotional core of the film, but it is sidelined and the film ends up being more of a greatest hits package of Thatcher’s political life.
Who can forget her Number 1 smash, ‘The Falklands’?
A focus on what made Thatcher human, such as the sense of loss she felt over the death of her husband, would have made for a more engaging film. Instead the focus is on all of the events which, in the eyes of the British public, made her an uncaring monster. It is very hard to like Thatcher, and it is very hard to separate the opinion you already have of her from Streep’s performance.
The film hits all the marks you expect, but this comes across as just being lazy. We all know the highlights from her reign as Prime Minister; if people wanted to see them laid out again then they can watch a documentary.
The direction throughout The Iron Lady is sloppy. But what else should we expect from Phyllida Lloyd, the director of Mamma Mia!? Lines are repeated, some shots make no sense, and there is an over reliance on archive footage. All of this makes for a jarring viewing experience. The film is also lacking in any kind of subtlety. A shot near the end of the film showing Maggie cleaning a teacup is the cinematic equivalent of getting hit in the face with a brick. Over and over again.
The weak attempt at making Thatcher out as some kind of female icon doesn’t fly either. Clearly Lloyd was aiming for a similar audience to that of Mamma Mia!. If that is the case then she is very far off target.
Mamma Mia!: hardly the calling card of the next Scorsese.
As the film wears on, it becomes hard to care about events on screen. We already know how the story goes and as a result there is nothing else to keep the viewer engaged. The film leaves with you a feeling of indifference.
The ending is also a damp squib. Thatcher’s story isn’t truly over yet. She may spend her time coming to terms with the death of her husband, but films such as this usually end with the lead character dying. The fact that Thatcher is still shuffling around means that the film can’t come to the natural conclusion of other biopics. Her political career may be over, but the ‘Iron Lady’ lives on.
Streep and Broadbent are good, but the relationship between their characters is shelved in favour of showing Thatcher in her prime, evolving into a political monster that becomes too big for her boots. Her shift from grocer’s daughter to the ‘Iron Lady’ makes no sense and it is difficult to root for such an unlikeable character. Oh, and Maggie? The Falklands are nothing at all like Hawaii.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Thatcher sees or talks to her dead husband.
Take a Drink: for every flashback.
Take a Drink: whenever Maggie takes a drink.