By Adam Vaughan
Margaret Thatcher is probably the most polarising figure in British politics so it was clear that ‘The Iron Lady’ was going to divide audiences all around our little group of nations. It was agreed that there were a number of ways the makers could have dealt with Maggie’s deeds and they chose one of these. The path of least resistance. ‘The Iron Lady’ is like watching an overlong Oscar campaign with Meryl Streep, as the eponymous ex-Prime Minister, doing what for all the world looks like an impression of Maggie’s puppet from Spitting Image. Perhaps if those involved had put as much time and effort into the construction of the film as they have to Streep’s prosthetics, the film might have been worthy of its desperate awards baiting.
As it is ‘The Iron Lady’ plays out in flashbacks as Streep’s ageing and ailing Thatcher remains locked up in a Sunset Boulevard-style penthouse, reminiscing of her rise from greengrocer’s daughter in war-torn Britain to leader of the country. At the same time, she regularly hallucinates; seeing, dressing and telling off her dead husband Dennis (a manic Jim Broadbent) whose increasingly frequent appearances soon become tiresome, serving as predictable segways into the next chapter of Thatcher’s life.
This is where the film really falls down. Instead of charging itself with a probing character dissection of the Prime Minister’s motivations and emotions regarding significant events during her leadership, the film cares more about hair and make up with only the slightest attempts at political debate. Key events such as violent clashes with union protesters and the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War are dealt with using blink-and-you-miss- it archive footage leaving Streep’s Thatcher – and the audience for that matter – barely enough time to breathe before moving on to the next historical episode. Screenwriter Abi Morgan had more success with the early years of the BBC in ‘The Hour’ than with this intermittently interesting, yet ultimately slight biopic.
So will Streep’s campaigning pay off? Her performance certainly has all the elements Oscar generally look for (historical figure, face and body transformation and many a stirring speech) and Streep is used to being nominated. There’s no doubting that this is Streep’s film, seemingly given free range to thesp willy nilly with almost no direction. If it weren’t for Streep, always a commanding and watchable screen presence, the film would inevitably cave-in on itself. Broadbent’s Dennis repeatedly prompts his wife to “steady the buffs” before addressing the media, a task Streep manages to do in the film. Just.
This picture marks a reunion between Streep and ‘Mamma Mia!’ director Phyllida Lloyd, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there isn’t much political depth. ‘Mamma Mia!’ is hardly ‘Battleship Potemkin’ after all even if now, with its setting at a hotel in disrepair on a Greek island, it does seem vaguely relevant to contemporary international concerns. Perhaps ‘Thatcher: The Musical’ would have been a safer bet.