The latest screenplay from Abi Morgan, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is a competent, sympathetic portrait of a lady descending into dementia after the loss of her husband, but as a Margaret Thatcher biopic it feels lightweight and far from complete.
The key question here is, can you do Thatcher without the politics? The Iron Lady reveals that the answer is yes, but raises the point of why you would want to.
Meryl Streep is, of course, a revelation as the longest serving Prime Minister of our 20th century. She looks and sounds the exact part, filling the role with poise and purpose, as a well as a subtle vulnerability.
We see Maggie from a young age, working in her father’s grocery store, hanging on his every word about the prevalence and importance of small businesses in England. She then moves on to Oxford University (at this point played by Alexandra Roach), where she not only acquires a taste for politics but also begins to be subjected to the chauvinistic male world that comes with it, a world that eventually shapes her entire career.
Her journey from the cradle to 10 Downing Street plays out like a BBC educational timeline. Rather than giving the appearance of a fluid journey, a life condensed into film, it jumps from one major event to the next, with only flashbacks to the present day and archive news footage interspered inbetween.
While there are scenes set within the walls of Parliament – debates in the House of Commons and Conservative cabinet meetings – that are convincing and impressive, when these are juxtaposed with numerous of the other locations and the aforementioned news footage, the latter two look very ropey, revealing budget constraints.
The key problem with The Iron Lady, however, is the way it skirts around the politics. It is neither opinionated nor balanced, it just trundles along continually referring back to the present day, where Maggie lives alone (bar the constant presence of armed guards), struggling with her degrading mental health. In this sense, it does take a stand on how we should feel about the ageing battle axe; it’s impossible for the audience to have a negative emotional reaction towards an old lady with a grief-induced illness.
In fact, the only emotion we’re encouraged to feel is admiration. Unquestionably, her rise to power is remarkable given her background and gender; she ushered in new ideas about the role of a woman in the political sphere, but that really isn’t the full story. Whether you’re a naysayer or a committed Thatcherite, you’ll be expecting to get far more of the story than you do.
Overall, a well-acted and relatively well-made biopic that avoids the major talking points you’d expect to see in a film about such a dividing political figure. Lightweight but watchable.