What was Phyllida Lloyd’s impetus for making The Iron Lady? Hell, whose idea was it to give her the project? I certainly get the idea of letting a woman direct the Margaret Thatcher story, and if casting an American actress is sort of baffling, you could hardly do better than Meryl Streep, especially with Roy Helland doing a great job to bridge the gap between their appearances. But that can’t bridge the fundamental gap between Lloyd and. Well. Talent. I can’t speak to her theatre work, which has been lauded for multiple productions, but how could anyone who say the Mamma Mia! movie think “Yes, this is the woman with the know-how to film the life of Margaret Thatcher!”? It’s a baffling film, seemingly constructed mostly from the moments in Thatcher’s life that are the least specific to her, banking deeply on both the sexism she faced as a politician and the Alzheimer’s-induced mania of her old age. I didn’t grow up with Thatcher as a political presence, and though I’m aware of enough critics who walked into the film with her in their lives that were unimpressed by the picture, I do wonder if it would’ve helped. But I also barely know anything more about her after The Iron Lady than I did before. Does the film assumes an audience who knows Thatcher walking into it, and therefore elects not to spend that much time detailing her political exploits? It’s a far more puzzling film than I expected, not because of what it does but because of what it doesn’t do, ultimately leaving Thatcher and Streep out to dry nearly the whole run time.
Let’s start from the beginning, when Margaret Thatcher is a tiny, wizened old maid who seems lost and uncomfortable buying a carton of milk in an Indian convenience store as she’s dwarfed by the other patrons. We head back home, where she boils an egg for her husband, an already uncomfortable scene that ends with the non-secret that he is dead. Already the film’s color palette establishes itself, where literally every piece of furniture and every outfit that is not one of Ms. Thatcher’s blue dress outfits is some shade of sad, sad gray, to include the skin of Thatcher and her husband. Based purely on color saturation, the human beings in the film seem to be made of even less flesh and blood than this stilted biopic, and that’s saying something. The blonde wig of Olivia Colman as Thatcher’s daughter Carol (who should’ve at least won Streep’s BAFTA for her heartbreaking work the same year in Tyrannosaur) and her furs is the only other color that lands, though her flashbacks predictably have a wider color palette and stronger saturation, if nothing special. From there we meet her as a young schoolmaid, listening to a speech her mayor father is giving and helping run his bakery. Her humble origins will be a constant source of belittlement to Thatcher by her colleagues, though even in the moment I couldn’t help but think of how many politicians I’ve seen bank themselves on their humble origins, how they’re of the people and therefore fit to lead the people. It’s a point Thatcher brings up herself and one she exploited in real life, though the film seems to underplay if not outright ignore how well she used that to get to voters.
Already we’re in The Imitation Game territory, by way of sanding off the edges of a person’s life that should frankly have made them interesting enough subjects for a biopic to be made about them. The temporal confusion, as we hop from Thatcher’s present through her past, is more evocative of La Vie en Rose than Imitation Game – Rose was a little more jumbled but had a similar trajectory in its use of its protagonist’s time instead of the bluntly extraneous arcs Imitation Game indulged in – as does the similarly talented makeup work, but it’s in telling the particulars of Thatcher’s career that The Iron Lady sharply falls behind the two. If La Vie en Rose was able to articulate how Edith Piaf’s life and upbringing influenced the performer she became, and The Imitation Game is far more focused on the reshaped version of Alan Turing’s work in the war it presents than it is the personal life that made him so tragic, The Iron Ladysimply spends far too much time telling us what Margaret Thatcher did than showing it to us as it gives us an inordinate amount of her personal life, before and after dementia. Policies are talked about without any glimpse of the real-world ramifications, only ever shown to us in montages that either show Thatcher’s popularity with the people or riots induced against the government. Stock footage is handily supplied for those riots, those publicity circuits, for the retaking of the Falkland Islands, as well as inserts of Streep’s Thatcher into photographs of her with Reagan. I’ve read dismissals of the film by Thatcher’s children, describing it as “a left-wing fantasy”, and in the way the film approaches her politics, they’re absolutely right. In an attempt to literally put us in Thatcher’s head, her conversation partners are often filmed with them staring directly into the camera. We literally see these men – only men, as the film has decided not to have any extras standing in for the baker’s dozen or more of female MPs during Thatcher’s time as PM, making that “Margaret BLUE Men GRAY” meme even more potent – talking down to Margaret repeatedly, frequently attacking her with sexist remarks and jabs at her lower-class origins instead of the content of her arguments. But the film, interested as it is in Thatcher as a woman over Thatcher as a politician, commits a similar kind of sin in prioritizing her womanhood over her politics instead of putting them on equal ground. There’s little context around Thatcher’s politics, not just in how they affect Britain but where they even came from (it’s all pinned on her mayor father, but we don’t even see them talk politics together, just her listening to his speeches), and because it’s so vague we too have to approach Thatcher as a woman before we approach her as a politician. Lloyd doesn’t even frame her consistently as championing her “right” ideas against the “wrong” ideas of the men around her, nor does she disagree with Thatcher’s positions. So enraptured in the struggles of its protagonist as a woman in politics is The Iron Lady doesn’t even seem to know what to do with its protagonist as a thinker, as a politician, as someone whose ideas shaped a country for just over a decade.
It’s not as though her home life is any richer to examine, though. Everything about it is remarkably perfunctory, from her courtship with her eventual husband Denis to the spare moments she has with her children, as kids and as adults – or adult, I guess, since her son Mark is only shown as a child – but even then, Carol Thatcher is not given much to do while her mother is well. The whole thing is crystallised in a scene of Margaret sitting shotgun to an adult Carol while she’s learning to drive, laughing that way a new driver and their parents might laugh after avoiding hitting a pedestrian – in their case a cyclist – but the mood is spoiled when they get home, and Margaret tells Carol and Denis she will be running for PM, and two characters we’ve barely seen demand that something be about them for once. But they’re as vague and underdefined as any random member of Parliament, just far more immediately recognizable. Carol at least takes on a caretaking role for Margaret once she can barely take care of herself, keeping her mother in the present and hanging out every once in a while. Denis, on the other hand, is a strange figure, a typical nondescript supportive spouse role in life that mutates after death once Margaret’s mental condition deteriorates, fluctuating between that same kind spouse routine and an almost demonic presence. It is the film’s and Streep’s insistence on loving him that carries more weight than Jim Broadbent is ever able to muster, though it’s hardly his fault he barely has a character to work with. His performance is hardly that different when alive or dead, and the massive spike in the editing does more to make Denis an overtly menacing presence than Broadbent does by bulging out his eyes even more, smiling wider, etc., but the effect does work. It’s simply an odd one to take, and the antagonism he represents in Thatcher’s old age ends up permeating his appearances in the timeline where she’s Prime Minister.
I don’t necessarily know if screenwriter Abi Morgan is more at fault here than Phyllida Lloyd – it’s her script that makes the family scenes so perfunctory, yes, but is Lloyd the one who puts Thatcher’s womanhood over her political ideals? A better director would’ve been able to pull off that balance, perhaps even foregrounded Thatcher as a political force while letting the scripted misogyny of Parliament speak for itself. Hell, a better director wouldn’t need to have Parliament break the fourth wall to properly convey the sexism Margaret faced every day. And what to make of Meryl Streep, exactly? She never embarrasses the film or herself, but she’s not better than the film by any conventional sense and is almost too in sync with Lloyd’s interpretation of the script. To bring up La Vie en Rose and The Imitation Game again, she’s never able to hoist her film into shape the way Marion Cotillard so phenomenally does, though Rose is a far more stable vehicle with more ideas about its central character than The Iron Lady. Streep is closer in step with Benedict Cumberbatch, but his tasks are a little tougher, and in service of an even more shambling film that at least has a real idea about its subject, albeit one divorced from the history it claims to represent. Streep’s Thatcher is too murky, and she’s too in step with her director to find and carve out a real character the way she does in August: Osage County, or elevate fairly solid material the way she does in The River Wild, in It’s Complicated, for Lloyd once before in Mamma Mia!, but she’s too enamored with the project to try and fight it or complicate it. Of course her accent work is spot on, and Roy Helland’s makeup is a huge asset to Streep, but as much as her characterization keeps the film humming along fine, she doesn’t want to do anything against the story Phyllida Lloyd is telling, and it limits her tremendously.
Oddly enough, the third biopic that this reminded me of was Jackie, not for any stylistic reason, but on a basis of personal response. I was mostly cold to both projects, but I can absolutely pinpoint the scene in both, at approximately the start of the last half hour, where I felt myself click with the aims of both films. For Jackie, it was the first shot of JFK’s funeral, the camera panning down while the coffin is pulled on horseback across the frame, going to our right. And for The Iron Lady, it was a scene of Thatcher of chewing out an underling (Wikipedia says he was deputy Geoffrey Howe) for coming to a Parliament meeting unprepared that got me on Lloyd’s wavelength. It’s one of the first times the film has her actually speaking her beliefs instead of having someone else talking about what she’s done, what her ideas have caused to Britain, what others think of her. Sure, the temperature of the scene is dialed way up, but it’s still the first moment that Lloyd and Streep’s ideas really seemed to coalesce around a concrete, opinionated, and bullishly stubborn woman. It’s the first time we really see her fight for something, passionately, instead of the milquetoast conversations she’s been having with Parliament up til now. Her hallucinated reliving of realizing she’s going to have to resign is the first time the blending of past and present has really hit, as opposed to a laughable earlier scene where Margaret watches an old video of the family at the beach until her son runs out of the TV to a scene of young Margaret as the voice of a reporter announces a recent political victory for her. It’s not as though anything changes in how The Iron Lady presents itself, but we finally got someone resembling the Margaret Thatcher this film had been gesturing to for over an hour now, and it’s a real boon to us and to Streep, especially once the film settles into focusing on Old Margaret. Denis convincing her to resign, her painful goodbye to her Parliament staff, her own goodbye to the ghost of Denis (surely not medically possible, but hey, it was poignant), all of this hits harder than I expected. A decent fourth quarter can’t make up for the previous 70 minutes of the film, but ending strong is always a great way for a rickety film to go out.
None of this answers the questions I asked at the start of the piece, though. I still don’t know why Phyllida Lloyd was given this film, nor what she ultimately made of it. It’s a tepid affair, one that doesn’t dig too deep into anything about Margaret Thatcher as a politician or a person to make the film a worthwhile exploration of her. Streep’s performance isn’t even the kind of tour-de-force performance that’s worth exploring in spite of her vehicle, perhaps not the worst of her nominated performances I’ve seen but definitely way lower tier than most of her work. I’m fairly surprised I’ve found this much to say about it, and can physically feel myself running out of steam trying to find a way to wrap this up. Is there any value here, beyond crossing her name of your “watch every acting nominee” list? I know I watched it for that reason, and I got very little out of it. It’s a dull picture, with very easy, surface-level ideas about what being a woman in politics could mean for Thatcher, or Thatcher’s own politics, or how any of that affected her family life. It’s nearly as inert as The Queen, though at least The Iron Lady has ideas about the conflicts of Thatcher’s life, even if it doesn’t seem to have that many ideas about her. If you’re looking for a film that’s as chronologically messy as a child scribbling crayons on a wall, check out La Vie en Rose, which has plenty to say about Edith Piaf and a genius central performance. Don’t watch The Imitation Game. But does The Iron Lady have anything to really offer, beyond top-notch biopic makeup with a lesson on how not interpret the life of one of the most polarizing politicians on Earth? I couldn’t say that it does, and that might be a more concrete position behind an idea than The Iron Lady ever musters about itself or its titular character. And for a film about a woman who inspired as much conversation, debate, praise, and denouncement as Margaret Thatcher, that’s absolutely unforgivable.