The Iron Lady (2011)

A generally chaotic biopic about one of the most influential leaders of the 1980s nearly makes Maggie wholly irrelevant.


Phyllida Lloyd

Abi Morgan

Director of Photography:
Elliott Davis

Running time: 105 minutes

After the success of her début feature, Mamma Mia!, director Phyllida Lloyd set her sights on the toothy-smiled Lady Thatcher, widely known as the “Iron Lady”, who is famous, among other things, for her power hairstyle, the very 1960s bouffant. Like so many other things, however, the origins of this nickname would be left out of the eponymous film.

From 1979 until her ouster in 1990, Thatcher served as the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister. She had a decisive influence on world history, but Lloyd’s fainthearted approach to this grand lady’s extraordinary combination of ambition and inflexibility has produced a film with even less dramatic weight than the cinematic rendition of the ABBA fairy tale.

The Iron Lady first introduces us to Thatcher in the present day, in a corner shop in London, where she buys a pint of milk without being recognised by anyone. Now, anyone familiar with Thatcher will know the importance of milk in her biography: As education secretary in the 1970s, her decision to end the government’s funding of milk in schools earned her the nickname “Margaret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher”. But the film never even mentions this episode.

The frail Thatcher shuffles back to her apartment, milk in hand, where husband Dennis is waiting to have breakfast with her. Moments later, Thatcher’s secretary sticks her head through the door, and from her point of view we see the former prime minister having breakfast alone. Thatcher’s mental state is precarious at best, and her grip on reality is slipping away on a daily basis, a debilitating condition aggravated by her heavy drinking.

The Iron Lady could have been forgiven for book-ending the real flesh of the film – Thatcher’s political trajectory and the narrative of her premiership – with this tragic glimpse of her current mental state. Instead, it tries to emulate Thatcher’s erratic state of mind by flitting back and forth between the past and the present in seemingly haphazard fashion and piling on the scenes between her and an imaginary Dennis.

A Beautiful Mind, the Oscar-winning 2001 film about Nobel Prize–winning economist John Nash’s struggles with schizophrenia, at least had the good sense to slot his delusions into a proper plot. By contrast, The Iron Lady is a mess comparable to the state of the United Kingdom at the beginning and the end of Thatcher’s reign. The film is not a depiction of her life story as much as it is of her state of mind in the present, and this is infinitely less interesting than the actual flow of history and her role in it.

Once one of the most powerful figures on the global political stage, Thatcher’s deterioration could have provided a compelling contrast to her story of human perseverance and a woman’s struggle to beat the odds stacked against her. But the film keeps us at arm’s length throughout: Content to present us with a near-copy of the woman, thanks to the makeup and Meryl Streep’s excellent portrayal, it fails to place her in a network of faces, and even as her own face fills the screen, we never know what she thinks or what she fears.

Moments like the one in which Thatcher’s daughter tells her, likely for the umpteenth time, that Dennis is no longer with them, or another in which she dances with her long-deceased hubby, sadly evoke no feeling from us because they are wooden set pieces that provide no insight into her own perception of these moments.

The dialogue is equally unworthy of an actress like Streep: While the screenwriter may have considered it a priority to either steep Thatcher’s statements in dramatic irony or use them as a knowing representation of her political ideology, the effect on the film is devastating and makes it seem robotic rather than human.

Important landmarks, from Thatcher’s election as prime minister and her determined show of British sovereignty by launching the Falklands War, to the many IRA bombings, her meeting with fellow conservative-in-arms Ronald Reagan and the eventual fall of communism, are dutifully but sloppily ticked off one by one, without narrative intelligence or any hint of their impact on Thatcher’s own life.

The Iron Lady does little to dig beneath the surface of this enigmatic woman. It is a botched film – amateurish at best, despite Streep’s performance – that should have starved to death without anyone batting an eye, just like Thatcher did to the Irish Republicans.

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