There are few political figures as polarizing at Margaret Thatcher, leader of great Britain through a tumultuous decade that followed a sharp, shocking decline in the UKs economic and social fortunes. Any film that tackles her story is bound to be met with a great deal of skepticism, fearing either hatchet piece or hagiography.
Gratefully, the script by Abi Morgan (writer of this year’s fantastic SHAME), and the assured direction from Phyllida Lloyd (who previously worked with Streep in MAMMA MIA) mange to do something quite compelling – tell the tale of Thatcher as a person, as a woman, leaving explicit judgement aside. This is not to say that somehow her more controversial moments are whitewashed or diminished – instead, through the effective technique of flashback, we get to see the events unfold, and bring our own judgement to her actions and behaviour throughout.
It’s of no surprise that the greatest special effect in the entire film is Streep’s astounding transformation into Thatcher. In the buildup to the films premiere, a 60 MINUTES interview cut from footage of Streep playing the Prime Minister, to grainy vintage footage of the same event. For whatever reason, the Streep shots looked more like the actual events than the archive shot, she quite simply embodies Thatcher the way we remember her being. Yet, when we’re introduced to the character, she’s frail, old, and quite clearly suffering from dementia, hallucinating that her late husband is still there to provide a foil to her witty remarks. As she prepares to pack for the last time her husbands belongings, she flashes back to previous events in her life, providing those glimpses into some of the more prominent moments of her storied life.
The use of flashback certainly isn’t new, but it’s done in a very fine fashion here, slipping in and out as Thatcher remembers a given moment. As we float in and out of time, we actually are able to question some of her later political miscalculations, wondering in the same frustration and hostility we see from a degenerating old woman may have taken hold at the latter part of her career. Similarly, while not always on the ball in the present time of the film’s story (set in 2008, tied to the Mumbai bombings), she can hold her own with the same firebrand rhetoric that made her famous.
This is not a perfect film by any means, but it avoids a large number of pitfalls that easily could have befell it. Streep may steal the show, but the likes of stalwart performer Jim Broadbent provide excellent opportunities for lovely little intimate moments. What comes across clearly is that, whatever the judgement of her political cause, as a woman she managed something quite extraordinary in a closed British society. It was the Soviets, after all, that dubbed her the IRON LADY. Her strength of will, often difficult to distinguish from Hubris, meant that at the least she needed to be confronted with, never ignored. Similarly, the film does a more than adequate job in showing that after the myth has faded, after the glory and downfall of her political career has slipped into history, that she has become what she promised her late husband she would never simply be – a woman, in a house coat, washing up after mid-afternoon tea. To see those frail hands washing the cup, closing out the film, it’s impossible to think that’s the entirety of how history will remember the IRON LADY.
A version of this review also appears at Press+1