The Iron Lady

If you approach The Iron Lady as a biography of Margaret Thatcher, the British politician, you will be disappointed. It plays out more like the aimless remembrances of a kindly old lady. Our production opens with a woman in the twilight of her existence. Fragile but capable, she has endeavored to buy a pint of milk in a nearby convenience store in what appears to be a rather seedy part of town. When she returns, we become aware that she has actually “escaped” from her residence much to the chagrin of her handlers. This is the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who held the office from 1979 to 1990. Through a series of flashbacks we are given glimpses of her life. Meryl Streep is Margaret Thatcher. She’s got her mannerisms, her look, everything is in order. Never once did I think this was an actress playing a part. She inhabits the role so thoroughly, at times I felt as though I were watching the actual politician in a documentary.

Where The Iron Lady flounders is in the editing. What could have been brilliant as the study of a complicated woman, is a failure as an incisive biography. We get snapshots of a life. Brief peeks in the chronology of her political timeline: election to Parliament, role as Education Secretary, accession to leader of the Conservative party. Her transformation from a working class woman to eventual role as Prime Minister is fascinating. The difficult road she traveled to assume that office is touched upon. Virtually all of the scenes depicting her civic side are endlessly entertaining. But the script addresses these political events without any real depth. Her dealings with the nation’s crippling recession, angry trade unions and The Falklands War, are all mentioned in a cursory manner. Many details are forgotten altogether, Blink and you’ll miss that she even knew close friend Ronald Reagan, the U.S. President during her tenure. It’s History Lite. Whenever the drama begins to develop steam we flash forward to a doddering old woman.

Her political career should have been the driving focus of the film. Unfortunately much of the narrative unwisely centers on Margaret Thatcher in the present day as a woman suffering from dementia. The modern day blends with the past and it’s meant to imply her own inability to tell the difference. But the framework is jarring to an audience and not conducive to a well told tale. In the here and now, she frequently has conversations with her dead husband Denis Thatcher played by Jim Broadbent. These dialogues are quaint, but they belong in a different movie. They listen to “Shall We Dance?“ from The King and I several times and the vignettes feel as though someone hijacked the memoir to tell the tale of a cute elderly lady. Give me a break!  This was the first woman to not only head a major political party in the United Kingdom, but to also run the whole country. The presentation of her professional life is so much more credible.

The Iron Lady is flawed. There’s a very good film contained within, but I suspect some of it is on the cutting room floor. Margaret Thatcher’s political pursuits are where this shines. Some judicious editing could have taken this to the next level. I’m reminded of another Meryl Streep vehicle. Julie & Julia was a good movie – whenever the chronicle focused on Julia Child, that is. So too is The Iron Lady a superior production whenever Margaret Thatcher is the tenacious leader of Great Britain. The agreeable matriarch of the present simply diminishes dramatic tension whenever things start to get exciting. Perhaps that’s the contradictory perspective director Phyllida Lloyd wanted to relate, but Thatcher’s energizing display as an obstinate firebrand of the past is so much more engaging. Meryl Streep deserves a lot of recognition for her singular performance, the story – not so much.

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16 Responses to “The Iron Lady”

  1. If I go to see this, it will be only because of Streep. Nice review.

  2. Michael S. Says:

    I wanted a film about Thatcher the politician and Thatcher the person (one that could balance the two)… not a Disney-fied version that skips the politics and instead focused on Dementia lol.

    But great review Mark. Streep is great. I too would ONLY recommend it to fans of hers who are content with marveling at how uncanny her physical transformation is.

    • This was such a missed opportunity. In the hands of a more qualified director, this could have been great. I saw your review. I didn’t hate it anywhere near as much as you did, but I can’t defend it either. I was just mesmerized by Meryl Streep. She was incredible. The director as well as the editor just let her down.

  3. I agree with you completely. I wanted more content, not flashbacks. Movie was just…okay. Now Meryl on the other hand, was magnificent. She nailed the role. I hope its enough to earn her an Oscar.

  4. Very well-written review, Mark! Enjoyed reading it. I’m looking forward to watching this movie mainly because I’m a huge Meryl Streep fan (who isn’t?) Let’s see if this year brings her 17th Oscar nom and 3rd win. Viola Davis is super strong this year, though.

    • Yeah I feel Davis will walk away with the award this year. Streep deserves it. She’s incredible. However this film is flawed. People love The Help. Civil rights dramas are so respectable. With that said, Fernando, I believe you will love The Iron Lady because of Steep.

  5. At last! We are in agreement! I suppose the critic world would be boring if we all made the same noises. Apologies for the slightly resentful “made for Americans” sentiments – while editing the show I almost felt like cutting those bits out, and yes you are right – the movie was by and large, a very BRITISH production! (go figure) Did you see “We need to talk about Kevin” yet? I think it’ll be close between Ms Streep and Ms Swinton – not sure I’d back either of them yet though! Roll on the golden globes…. Great review man – not to pry into your private life or anything but do you write professionally??

    • This is just my personal blog, but I’d love for it to become my profession. Haven’t seen We Need to Talk about Kevin yet. It comes out here at the end of the month. I suspect Viola Davis will beat them both for Best Actress for The Help.

  6. Streep’s performance is so true and so uncannily accurate, so full and so complete in its understanding, that she is fascinating every second she is onscreen. As for the film itself, the structure is a bit off and the screenplay doesn’t really give us much else other than a history lesson, but a good history lesson at that. Nice review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

  7. Good film, nice reviews.

  8. Great review. Pretty much confirmed my suspicions about this movie. I’ll probably watch it on like a rainy day or something…when I have more of a minute. I love Meryl, but I’m kind of wary of biopics. They usually tend to veer more south than anything.

    • If the script had focused more on Margaret Thatcher as a politician and less on her as an old woman suffering from dementia, this could’ve been a great film.

  9. We gave it virtually the same grade. I LOVED Streep here, but everything else was so dumb. The dementia scenes were all too common, and often times, they looked straight out of a psychological thriller.
    Here’s my review:
    http://themoviefreakblog.com/review-the-iron-lady

  10. Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher was great, but the make -up stole the show. I don’t know if there is such an academy award but it should have been given for this movie! I agree completely with your criticism of this movie. Emphasis and editing overlooked a very interesting subject to produce a very mediocre movie. Focus should have been on her political career. That is what makes her of interest to the public, not her declining years. The first woman to run the United Kingdom is what interests me.
    I feel the movie’s real aim was to do a hatchet job on Margaret not by questioning her achievements but by focusing on her dementia, even emphasing it more than it truly was.
    I felt, even in this biased movie, Margaret could distinguish her husband as a memory rather than an actual hallucinantion. The fact she reazed his intrusion in the present could be stopped by getting rid of all his things indicates this. Also her having kept them so long might have only meant she wished to hold on to his presence rather than not being able to control that presence.

    • There is in fact an Academy Award called Best Achievement in Makeup and The Iron Lady did indeed win the award that year.

      According to Wikipedia:

      “The competitive category was created in 1981 as the Academy Award for Best Makeup, after the Academy received complaints that the make-up work in The Elephant Man (1980) was not going to be honored.”

      I question whether the filmmakers decision to focus on her dementia was perhaps a desire to make her seem more likeable to her critics. If they were trying to do a hatchet job, even her detractors would probably find making fun of her dementia in extremely poor taste. Regardless of what the intent, it was a bad decision.

  11. Suppose you’d been asked to dramatize the life of one of the most influential politicians of an era. Why in heaven’s name would you devote half the time you’d been given to portraying the woman in her dotage, caught up in such details as the price of butter, lapsing into acrimonious hallucinations with her dead husband, surrounded by people not one of whom she could call a friend or philosophical ally and all of whom regarded the comments she continued to make with undisguised condescension? Well, suppose you’d been asked to profile this particular politician mainly because of her sex and you really couldn’t stomach the political point of view she represented. Then you could use the depiction of her senility to show how little she’d changed. In her political career the audience would glimpse again the concern she’d expressed over the price of butter, for example, but beyond that they’d see the same deficiency in her personal relationships, illustrated by everything from the superficial bantering she indulged in with her husband, minimal involvement with her children, a lack of friends and philosophical allies even among fellow office-holders, an unwillingness to discuss issues with them, a propensity to speak imperially and dictate decisions at odds with those of her colleagues, leading the people who worked for her to adopt the same kind of eye-rolling acceptance that the overseers of her senility would rely on later. The difference, of course, would be that the pronouncements she issued as prime minister could immediately be followed by scenes of police beating back enraged protesters. It would be hard to square deficiencies of the sort the woman displayed in this movie with the fact that she’d been elected to the leadership of a party controlled by (what we were led to view as) intransigent males, that she’d held the office of prime minister longer than anyone else in recent history, and (we know from external sources) among many friends and philosophical allies, her husband was the most constant and Ronald Reagan the most renowned. But why, you might suggest, couldn’t we attribute the successes she did have to the kind of patriotic appeals she relied on during the Falklands incident? Well, you could, I suppose, but even on dramatic grounds alone, wouldn’t honesty work better?

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