Film Review: ‘The Iron Lady’

Despite her recent descent into reclusiveness, Margaret Thatcher remains one of the most divisive political figures of the 20th century, and so any film that attempts to document her life will inevitably be met with fierce controversy. Mamma Mia (2008) director Phyllida Lloyd and US star Meryl Streep make a brave attempt at tackling the matriarchal figure in new film The Iron Lady (2011), at the expense of any substantial political or ideological insight.

Described by Lloyd herself as more of a King Lear-esque tragic fictionalisation of Thatcher’s life rather than an historically accurate biopic, The Iron Lady jumps between the present – portraying this once gargantuan leader as a withered, fragile recluse – and key moments in the iconic politician’s rise to power, including her fledgling romance with husband Denis (Harry Lloyd/Jim Broadbent), her succession as the country’s first female prime minister and final catastrophic fall from grace.

The film’s most problematic issue arises when Lloyd takes the decision to shirk away from confronting the key decisions that defined Thatcher’s political career. Civil unrest and public rioting – an unavoidable part of her legacy after the Conservative Party’s decision to downsize the country’s mining industry in 1984 and introduce the hugely unpopular Community Charge poll tax in 1990 – is simplistically depicted twice in the film via an angry mob drumming on Thatcher’s car, showing little or no interest in the motivations behind the country’s antagonism on either occasion.

Similarly, the pivotal sinking of the Argentine vessel ARA General Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands War is depicted as proof of Thatcher’s military acumen rather than a split-second decision on whether to open fire upon a potential (however slim the possibility) foreign aggressor. Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan flit uncomfortably from objectivity to subjectivity, at times forcing you to question the veracity of the production’s apparent ‘non-biased’ standpoint, leaving the film stranded somewhere in between the labelled ‘left-wing fantasy’ and a ‘rags-to-riches’ melodrama.

The Iron Lady is ultimately saved by its intriguing modern day sequences and an unbelievable example of mimicry from Streep. From her trill, yet commanding voice (her perfected cry of “Denis” should stay with you after the film’s climax) through to her no-nonsense demeanour, Streep entirely encapsulates Thatcher from Lady to Baroness, showcasing extreme fragility and commanding dominance in equal measure. In support, Broadbent’s jovial performance as late husband Denis and Olivia Colman’s turn as the toothy Carol Thatcher both work well, providing some much-needed narrative balance as they interact with the ageing, pottering matriarch pottering within her memory-riddled London flat.

Whilst Streep already looks a deserved dead cert for the 2012 Best Actress Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, The Iron Lady looks unlikely to trouble big hitters such as The Artist (2011) and War Horse (2011) in regards to the Best Picture category. Lloyd has shown herself a more than capable director, and Morgan just about gets away with a somewhat muddled portrait of the British political titan, but don’t expect the film to come anywhere close to recapturing the near-unanimous national clamouring of praise received by Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech this time last year.

Daniel Green

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