The Iron Lady

Phyllida Lloyd's film about Margaret Thatcher is a soft-focused, depoliticised look at the former PM


2 stars



Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Anthony Head, Richard E Grant


Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady begins with an elderly Margaret Thatcher talking to Denis over a breakfast of boiled eggs, before her housekeeper distracts her and the camera cuts back to Lady T opposite an empty chair, talking to herself.


The former PM's much reported dementia is threaded through the entire length of The Iron Lady, yet it's totally irrelevant to the story, except as an exploitative narrative device.


As Thatcher's mind rolls back through her life, screenwriter Abi Morgan uses Mrs T's senility to weave in and out of her own biography, jumping from life above the grocer's shop in Grantham through to infiltrating the old boy network of the 1960s House of Commons and the years at Number Ten.


To jab an accusing finger at The Iron Lady for expunging Thatcherism out of the Thatcher story, and essentially defanging her, only exposes how the Left missed out on getting there first.


There's no obvious agenda on show here, but a filmmaker with an opinion about Thatcher the politician might have been less queasy at including a political dimension to the film. As it is, it's almost completely absent from The Iron Lady, and it smacks of artistic cowardice.


There's simply too much to include in the film's slender 104 minute running time, which means it's a brisk gallup through her 11 years in office, made worse by so many scenes of her in old age clogging up the movie. There's no context, no sense of narrative flow.


Maggie holds hands with Denis in the air at her victory  in The Iron Lady

We see Thatch running for the Tory leadership and being instructed by her PR guru, Gordon Reece, on how to moderate her voice to make it more palatable to a dubious public. Cue a dizzying, King's Speech-style sequence with a voice coach and an excitable camera, but nothing after to show how she transformed her image.


The Brighton bomb of 1984 is shown ripping through Mr and Mrs T's bedroom, but again, nothing after. Nothing about how this life-changing event solidified her idea of good and evil in the world, of how many Tories died in the attack or of how she dusted herself down ready for a defiant speech only hours after.


One of the most potentially cinematic moments in modern political history is tossed away, only to make way for another dignity-stripping scene of an old lady forgetting that her children don't live with her anymore.


Even the final days of her premiership, of which whole TV movies have been made before now, are skimmed over, with little regard to the beats of the real story. The reasons for her fall from power had been slowly escalating for a year before the last push.


There's no Nigel Lawson (whose 1989 resignation set in course the events that would topple her) or Sir Anthony Meyer (the stalking horse leadership candidate who emerged following Lawson's departure), and precious little Geoffrey Howe, John Major or Michael Heseltine, the main players in that dramatic week in November 1990.


Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

There's no miners strike, no Keith Joseph (who probably had the most profound effect on the young Thatch's free market politics), nothing on the 1981 riots...


When the movie does pause for a newspaper headline moment, such as the bombing of the Belgrano during the Falklands war, it exists in a vacuum. There's no outside in this film, beyond some occasional spliced in real-life footage, and no dissenting voices. Anyone going into this film with little knowledge of the Thatcher years would learn next to nothing of the effect of Thatcherism on the streets outside W1 or have any idea of the counter argument.


There's something too mannered, too heritage-like about The Iron Lady's stylings, but the memories are too raw for that. It'll probably work internationally, where Thatcher's name comes with less emotive baggage, but it's hard to see what it would offer anyone from either side of the political rainbow here.


With so little politics there's nothing to cheer or boo, nothing to spark any fire.


Richard E. Grant as Michael Heseltine

If there's one reason to see this, it's Meryl Streep, who buries herself so much in the role that you have to work hard to picture the real deal.


Less impressive is Jim Broadbent as a fatally misdirected Denis Thatcher. Mr T was a far sharper and more prickly character than the rather doltish one here, who seems siphoned from the pages of Private Eye' s Dear Bill column.


Oliver Stone had 192 minutes to tell his story of Richard Nixon, but Phyllida Lloyd's film is too ambitious in its scope for only 1 hour 44 minutes.


The only upside is that it's so off-target and so soft-focused that it makes it easier for other, more engaged filmmakers to come in and shake the house a bit.


Click here for the trailer:



Steve O'Brien



The Iron Lady
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