If you’re making a film about Hitler, you’re probably going to portray him as some kind of monster. If there’s a biopic about Mother Theresa, it’s hardly going to depict her as some harpy with a mercenary streak. But in a country where so many people still believe that Thatcher destroyed Britain’s industries and communities, how would a movie chronicling the rise of the UK’s first female Prime Minister be received?
First of all, The Iron Lady is not quite the Thatcher biography one would expect. The plot is essentially split into two concurrent strands: one thread follows the rise of a young grocer’s daughter to the highest government position in the land while the other story is that of an elderly woman suffering from dementia who experiences hallucinations of her late husband.
In the title role, Meryl Streep plays a very effective Thatcher, capturing her mannerisms and voice in a way that only occasionally borders on caricature. We see her attend Oxford University and rise up through the ranks of the Conservative Party, encountering 60s-style misogyny from old-guard Etonians. Key moments in her political career -from the Falklands conflict and her demolition of trade unions to her attempts to implement the poll tax- are used as milestones in her personal journey without much being said about how those policies and decisions affected the country at large. However, with the director of Mamma Mia at the helm, one cannot truly expect a nuanced examination of socio-political change. Indeed, it seems that Phyllida Lloyd and her screenwriter Abi Morgan have chosen to sidestep this minefield in order to focus on the love story of-sorts between Streep’s Thatcher and her husband Denis (played, of course, by the reliably wonderful Jim Broadbent).
With the scenes of her earlier life played in flashback, the remainder of the movie takes place in modern day, where the long-retired PM is portrayed as a lonely widow haunted by the ghost of her beloved husband. Although she speaks to him at length (hen-pecking Denis much in the way we suspect she did throughout his life), Thatcher remains aware that he is a symptom of her mental decline. While very affecting, these scenes seem more like riffs on Pixar’s Up than an appropriate counterpoint to the rest of the story.
Key figures in government have already criticized the film, suggesting it may be inappropriate to tell this particular story during Baroness Thatcher’s lifetime. While this may be true, the movie’s real flaw is its lightweight take on such a crucial period in the country’s history. The fact that is uses the disenfranchisement of the British public as mere background colouring for Thatcher’s personal story only adds to this insensitivity.
Of course, The Iron Lady is a handsomely made picture with great performances and much to recommend: the reviewer for The Telegraph absolutely loves it, American audiences will probably watch it and Streep will no doubt find herself covered in glory come Oscar season.
Just don’t expect it to perform well in Scotland.