Few public figures polarise opinions like Margaret Thatcher. To some, she was a necessary shot in the arm for a country on its knees, to others she was a monomaniacal autocrat with a grudge against the working class. Therefore any biopic of her (whatever your political stance, there’s no denying her relevance) is an incredibly brave thing to do.
Abi Morgan’s script sees Thatcher as an old woman, confronting advancing senility while under guard in her own home. She imagines that her husband Denis is still alive and through a series of flashbacks begins to reminisce on her time as Prime Minister.
What’s strange about The Iron Lady is the length of time it spends with her in the present. In fact, for the first 20 minutes, it could be mistaken for a story of any senior citizen – a study less of a politician but more of any elderly person facing dementia.
The script, when it does get going, is light and breezy – a quick whistle stop tour of Maggie’s political highlights. It sticks to the personal qualities which made her who she was: stubbornness; unwillingness to compromise and an unflinching belief that she was right, but never probes beneath a merely superficial level.
In maintaining such a tight focus on Maggie the person, it neglects the wider ramifications of her political decisions. So, there’s a brief mention of the poll tax riots, the barest minimum about the miner’s strike (Arthur Scargill is nowhere in sight) and moves from 1982’s Falklands’ War to her resignation eight years later in under 15 minutes. It’s Thatcher without attempting to engage with Thatcherism – there’s no depth, merely snapshots of political career.
The film’s undeniable strength is Meryl Streep who delivers another astounding performance. Her portrayal of Thatcher is uncanny; everything from the slightly shrill voice (“methinks the lady doth shriek too much” cries one of her rivals at one point), to her stance and posture.
While Streep is the film’s lodestone, there are other great performances. Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher is lovably off beat and Olivia Colman puts in another great turn as Carol Thatcher, a woman who shows a great love for a mother so bound up in politics that she’s neglected her family. Other supporting players are less successful: Anthony Head doesn’t make a convincing Geoffrey Howe and Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine is nothing short of laughable.
But while the film is bolstered by an incredible leading role and some good support which will no doubt scoop awards, they can’t prop up a gutless script that tries unwisely to sieve the woman from the politics.