The Iron Lady

Despite an all-star cast, too little is left unsaid in this contentious biopic of Margaret Thatcher

Meryl Streep’s previous collaboration with the director Phyllida Lloyd was the ABBA movie Mamma Mia!. The Iron Lady concerns another modern icon loved and loathed in equal measure, though this time there is no singing, little dancing and very little feel good factor.

Margaret Thatcher has been pilloried and parodied to such an extent in the five decades since she rose to prominence as a Conservative MP that Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s bid to uncover the 'human' behind the caricature was likely doomed. Sure, Streep’s performance is superb, a stunning impersonation. But the film she inhabits is a bit of a drag.

First, the positives. Streep pours herself into the bouffant hairdo, the starchy suits and the pearl necklace. Magnetic throughout, the multiple Oscar-winner nails Thatcher’s voice and mannerisms. And those who would sniff at the idea of an American playing such a quintessentially British figure obviously haven’t seen Welshman Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, or Yorkshire’s Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi.

Yet, despite Streep’s powerhouse turn, The Iron Lady never really hits home. The film dwells on Thatcher’s decline into dementia at the expense of what is undeniably a fascinating life story.

Her political rise and fall is framed by interminable sequences of the Alzheimer’s-riddled former prime minister rattling about a dusty townhouse, imprisoned by police bodyguards and fussed over by daughter Carol (Olivia Colman).

Thatcher’s journey is shown in a series of flashbacks, from her youth as a greengrocer’s daughter in Grantham to her tearful resignation after 11 eventful years as PM.

We see the seeds that would create her character: the working-class upbringing that encouraged the young Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) to aspire to greatness (‘One’s life must matter’); the stoic father (Iain Glen) who instilled in her a sense of purpose (‘Never follow the crowd’); the World War II bombings that roused a defiant patriotism; and the INLA murder of adviser Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) that hardened her resolve against terrorism.

Many of the key episodes that defined Thatcher’s tenure at Number 10 are featured, albeit fleetingly: the Falklands War, the Poll Tax Riots, the ending of the Cold War. Yet frustratingly 'the Irish Problem' is skimmed over – the hunger strikes aren’t covered at all – while her dealings with segregated South Africa are ignored almost entirely.

Politically, The Iron Lady is more even-handed than might have been expected. The Right will find the focus on the ailing Thatcher and conversations with the 'ghost' of her late husband Denis (nicely played by Jim Broadbent) distasteful, while the Left will resent that many of the politician’s most notorious manoeuvres are presented as having been informed by a genuine desire for the good of the nation.

Lloyd even allows for a handful of fist-pumping moments, notably Thatcher’s hard-fought triumph over the Conservative Party’s inherent sexism and classism to become Europe’s first female prime minister, and a scene in which the steely premier takes on a patronising US secretary of state.

In the end, though, what Thatcher did, how she did it and why it matters are rendered almost insignificant by a film that often seems more interested in the mechanics of senility. A recurring theme is thoughts and ideas versus feelings. Ultimately, what The Iron Lady needs is more of the former and less of the latter.

Still, there’s always something to look at. Streep is surrounded by a who’s who of British acting talent portraying a who’s who of late-20th century British politicos: Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine, John Sessions as Edward Heath. Most pull it off, though none dwell too long onscreen. The Iron Lady is – like its subject – a one-woman show.

The Iron Lady is on general release now.