Meryl Streep, with her impeccable vocal mimicry, is uncanny at impersonating Mrs Thatcher. Other well-known British actors fill the ranks in supporting roles (Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent and Anthony Stewart Head all put in stellar performances). While the trailers for The Iron Lady focus on the struggle Mrs Thatcher faced trying to break into the man’s world of politics, the film itself is primarily the story of Baroness Thatcher’s demise into dementia and her hallucinations of her long dead husband. While this exposition certainly takes up a lot of screen time and is mostly sympathetic, it is occasionally played for laughs. I found it tasteless for the film to portray dementia from the insider’s perspective, particularly when non-sufferers can never really understand what it is like to experience such a horrendous condition. It was very confusing to have so many of these scenes in the film, since they were somewhat superfluous to the main narrative. The dementia-based scenes also delve very deep into her current relationships with her two grown-up children, something which was a bit too personal for my taste, especially considering that all the people depicted are still alive today.
The main narrative of the film, concerning Mrs Thatcher’s time at 10 Downing Street, is told in a series of flashbacks beginning with her formative years as an ambitious young woman listening to the political speeches of her father (who is played by the same actor who portrays Sir Richard Carlisle in Downton Abbey, by the way). The depiction of her early years in politics is one of the most insightful aspects of the film, covering her rise to power as a woman in a man’s world, and a grocer’s daughter in an upper class society. The film then moves on to very broadly, and swiftly, cover a whole host of very in-depth sociopolitical topics such as her dealings with the IRA, the unions, the Falklands war, her instigation of the end of the cold war, her views on England’s independence with regard to Europe, and the poll tax riots. This film has a really broad scope on English history, and it is an incredibly ambitious attempt to cover her whole reign in a two-hour film (especially when so much screen time is devoted to her as an old lady walking around her house).
The best sequences of this film were her ambitious rise to power as a young woman (the first female to lead a western country) and her stalwart role as formidable war horse in the Falklands conflict. These sections were the snippets of an excellent film fighting to free themselves from the shackles of a good film, weighed down by a focus that was too broad and a timeframe that was too sweeping. What would have been a fantastic celluloid achievement in British film would be to focus the biopic of the Iron Lady on her struggle to be taken seriously as a woman in politics and her rise to power over a male government, the crowning achievement of which was being a female wartime leader who was in charge of both the male dominated political and military spheres and was ultimately victorious. That would have been a great British film to celebrate in 2012.
One thing to be considered about this film is whether it brings a new, younger audience to the Thatcher years, who may not be so well-versed in the details of the politics of the time. Or will this film increase her popularity over the pond, who have not as yet had a female president? The flashback scenes in the film did a good job in bringing out her firm leadership style of “no retreat and no surrender” (even if they portrayed her reign over the rest of parliament in a very positive light), something which may not always be the most tactful choice when dealing with civil disorder at home, but it sure as hell is exactly the characteristic your country needs in a wartime leader. At the end of the day, she’s not just the Iron Lady, she’s also one heck of a War Horse.