What a tepid, boring waste of an opportunity to tell Margaret Thatcher’s story. I think enough time has passed that we can look back at the 80’s with a certain sense of historical perspective. And with that distance comes a renewed interest in examining the politics of the time and how they informed where we are now. Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of opportunities to be had in detailing the life story, ambition, and struggles of the first female British Prime Minister in history. Thatcher came up at the end of the Cold War, during a time when the world was run by old, white men– even more so than it is now. And she demonstrated an unparalleled will, resolve, strength, and toughness that earned her the nickname of the film’s title.
So it’s extremely disappointing how The Iron Lady glosses over her rise in the most superficial of ways. We never feel like we get to know the character beyond her archetype, and all of the attempts to dramatize her struggle to balance her political ambitions with a family life feels like a lot of aimless guesswork resulting in nothing more than broad generalities. It doesn’t help that only about half the film is spent on her actual story. We see her at a rally, being proposed to, and a scene or two in the House of Commons. She decides to run from Prime Minister, and there’s a bit about how she needs to be more authoritative. Late in the film we get a glimpse of her true power as she handles the Falklands War. And that’s it.
For some reason, Lloyd and her screenwriter Abi Morgan choose to spend at least half of the running time of the film with an elderly Thatcher as she fights early dementia and hallucinates conversations with the ghost of her dead husband, played by Jim Broadbent. Broadbent is a wonderful actor, but here all he’s called on to do is prance about like a jolly idiot and placate Thatcher in her search for the remote control or a momentary wistful thought about whether or not she spent enough time with their children. Obviously, there’s an aim for something along the lines of King Lear, but that’s something that could have been achieved in a few scenes, and certainly didn’t require more than half the film. And while the onset of dementia and the process of facing one’s own mortality certainly could make for a compelling story, why try to turn a bio-pic on Thatcher into that?
For all of the repetitive scenes with Thatcher sorting through her husband’s old clothes or eating breakfast, that’s time that could have been spent going into more detail with her as a younger woman. Yes, there may have been a conflict there between her family life and her political career, so let’s see it. Spend some time with the young Margaret Thatcher and her family. Dramatize her inability to be there for her children. Let’s get to know them as well. Make us privy to Thatcher’s fears, doubts, struggles, or her refusal to relent to a male-dominated world. Spend more time with Thatcher once she takes office. Instead, we get to see her deal with the Falklands crisis, and that’s it. You don’t come away from The Iron Lady feeling you know anything more about her political career, her rise, or her general character than you would from a few paragraphs of biography on wikipedia. And it doesn’t seem as though Lloyd or Morgan have any opinions of their own about Thatcher, or even anything much to say at all. To make matters even worse, there’s an over-reliance on newsreel footage that rarely adds anything, and seems a crutch to pad the running time and a device to break from the narrative every time they paint themselves into a corner, which is often. The fact that a female screenwriter and a female director have done so little to serve the life story of such a fascinating woman is beyond disappointing and smacks of complete and total failure.
Obviously, there’s a fantastic central performance here by Meryl Streep. And whether she’s absorbing the personality and mannerisms of Margaret Thatcher, or exploring her waning mental faculties in old age, Streep is always amazing. She’s reason enough to see the film, but just barely. And Harry Lloyd is sublime as a young Denis Thatcher, and unrecognizable from his work as Viserys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Streep and Lloyd, like most of the game, talented cast, deserve a script that actually gives them something to play and has a rich story to tell. I assume Margaret Thatcher deserves that as well, but The Iron Lady does very little to make that case for her.