Review: The Iron Lady (2011)

The Iron Lady


Phillida Lloyd
Abi Morgan
105 min.
Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Anthony Head, Iain Glen, Harry Lloyd, Richard E. Grant, Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach, Roger Allam
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity

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Russian leader Gorbachev once famously referred to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as “The Iron Lady”. That nomenclature hung tight for much of her career and has become the title of this first foray into the life and political ambitions of one of the most famous female world leaders in history.

American actress Meryl Streep might seem an unusual choice to take on such a quintessential British role, but once you catch sight of her in old age makeup at the start of the film, looking very much like Thatcher and then you hear her carefully accented voice, all concerns fade away. Streep’s Thatcher is brassy, bold and brave and that’s the way she should be. The problem comes when the film around her isn’t quite up to the level of quality we would have wanted.

Director Phyllida Lloyd has a paltry list of credits to her name and none of them seem to suggest she was quite suited for a biopic of this magnitude. Based on a screenplay by Abi Morgan (Shame), the film looks back with Thatcher as she examines her life and whether she has done what she always set out to do. Plagued by hallucinations of her late husband, Lloyd and Morgan guide us back to her first exposure to politics as her father spoke to a large group of businessmen before she was whisked away back to the kitchen where women at the time were expected to be. From this point forward, Thatcher is quickly portrayed as a new and dangerous threat to the patriarchal regime of Britain in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.

And this is mostly what the film contains, precious insight into how one woman stood up to her male peers and forced them to back down and support her in spite of their long history of exclusion. In this regard, The Iron Lady is a courageous tale showing the progress of women in politics over a span of 40 years. Yet, as a biopic, there are certain less halcyon elements that needed to be explored in more depth.

To condense such a broad era of history into such a short length requires a great deal of patience and a bit of lenience in terms of what elements of the story are covered. As the longest serving Prime Minister in British history, it becomes doubly more frustrating to convey all the necessary information about Thatcher’s questionable political legacy into that timeframe. This is one of the reason’s Morgan and Lloyd focused on the rise of women in politics angle over a more in depth analysis of Thatcher’s storied career. There are a handful of jabs at her far right wing politics, but not nearly enough to adequate educate those watching the film knowing little about Thatcher and her history.

And a film like this certainly wants to be viewed as a historical piece, one that can be shown in schools to inform young women what they can accomplish through perseverance. However, doing so without a balanced frame of reference can create a legend where a legend shouldn’t necessarily be. I applaud Thatcher for overcoming adversity to reach the success she obtained and it is an important story to be told; however, more outright exploration of her political ambitions and stances would improve any work documenting her life, making this a film that should be reserved for collegiate level analysis, not the grade school level.

As a film, The Iron Lady focuses too much time looking into the mind of an aging, mentally fractured woman comparing her struggle to overcome the loss of her husband who, as the film suggests, made it possible for her to be taken seriously, to the turmoil she faced making it into Parliament in the first place is an odd fit. The film could have been more effectively told as a straight forward, time-concurrent drama piece following Thatcher from grocery clerk to Prime Minister of Great Britain.

And while Streep has no issues commanding the screen each second of the film, having no issue conveying Thatcher at 40, 60 or 80, she is no match for a weak script that looks into the misty crystal ball of the past with fond memories of a challenged soul seeking acceptance and a rightful place among all men. The Iron Lady suffers as much from a lack of length as it does a lack of content.
Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: Actress (Meryl Streep) / Makeup
Probables: None
Potentials: Original Score / Art Direction / Costume Design
Unlikelies: None
Review Written
December 21, 2011

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