Director: Phyllida Lloyd. Film Four/Pathe et al
Producer: Damian Jones. Writer: Abi Morgan. Camera: Elliot Davis. Music: Thomas Newman. Sets: Simon Elliott.
Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Richard E. Grant, Anthony Head, Nicholas Farrell, John Sessions, Nick Dunning, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Iain Glen.
Biographical drama that follows the steady rise of greengrocer’s daughter Margaret Roberts (Roach) from humble beginnings in Grantham to becoming an MP for Finchley in the 1950’s and then being the first female Prime Minister in Britain. Looking back in her eighties when stricken with dementia, her story encompasses various crises during her tenure, including the Miners’ Strike, the Falklands War and the Poll Tax demonstrations before finally being ousted from power, set against the back drop of her own personal struggle to be accepted in the male dominated political scene at this time.
This might well be the Gone With the Wind of political bios…with Charlie Chaplin impressions thrown in to boot. And there are not many times that a critic will write that in his career.
Finally reaching multiplex screens after a long drawn out and aggravating publicity run, Mamma Mia! maestro Lloyd’s long-awaited Thatcher flick might tax the minds of young viewers unfamiliar with the scenarios depicted (or even the main character) but makes for rollicking fun for those of us old enough to recall the politico-dinosaurs on display.
Plaudits therefore to the casting team, whose good eye and clear headedness should be cheered for seeing deep into the roll-call of illustrious Brit character actors wheeled out to play Maggie’s Men: Grant as a greasy Michael Heseltine, Sessions as a dull, dithering Edward Heath and, most accurately of all, Head as avuncular, dependable Geoffrey Howe, who was most certainly never this interesting in real life and gets ticked off when he makes the PM blunt her pencil.
They had their work cut out for them as well, lucky to get even glancing credit when up against the might of ‘Streep Machine’ is a hard thing to achieve. And here she is firing on all cylinders and employing that formidable technical arsenal of hers. Accent, poise, understanding and psychology are all out in full force to help her nail the most infamous British politician of modern times with an impersonation of eerie, ghostly exactitude.
It’s certainly an astonishing and assured turn – perhaps too assured and too astonishing. Let no one be in any doubt, she’s in it to nab that third Oscar that, since her last win in 1982 for Sophie’s Choice has curiously eluded her (despite 14 further nominations) and good luck to her because on the surface she deserves it. But despite the remarkable battery of talent on display, there is something artificial, contrived, overly-rehearsed, a criticism she has faced many times in her careers (mostly from esteemed American critic Pauline Kael who once referred to her as ‘Android’ in a review). She is at once perfect, peerless, without reproach, admirable and also time teeth-grindingly precious and precocious. None the less, in the final analysis, she cows everyone around her into submission with a performance that traverses an astonishing tightrope between pantomimic overstatement and tear-jerking insight.
What’s even more incredible is that she manages to do this when The Iron Lady is obviously not that serious a film. That’s not exactly a bad thing; film biographies (and political biographies in particular) are notoriously dull, torpid affairs. The Iron Lady plays it for laughs. Broadbent (excellent as a jokey Dennis Thatcher) appears to the older, infirm Mrs T. throughout the film as a Shakespearean fool whom she ticks off for not wearing a scarf. These moments add an extra frisson of fitful directness that shock the audience with comedy and tragedy rolled into one.
Script wise, Morgan can have a field day with the obvious irony of having the old girl amazed at the price of a pint in a corner shop (‘Thatcher, Thatcher milk snatcher’ ran the headlines when, as Education secretary in the 70’s, she abolished free milk in schools to pupils over the age of seven) but the comedy catches fire more when subverting the gender-bending idea of female wielding political power (“Shall I be mother?” she asks the American Defence Secretary when offering tea after a heated Falkland’s discussions in which she points out that men frequently underestimate her; “Gentleman, shall we join the ladies?” she simpers at a Euro dinner, before pulling one of her many coquettish faces to camera). These moments also illustrate how Thatcher more than gladly played on her femininity to bolster her hold on power.
The stand out moment, in terms of camp value if nothing else however, is the brief scene where Thatcher, striving for leadership of the Tory party, tries to master a new, deeper and more authoritative voice.
In support, special mention must go to an unrecognisable Colman in what one would assume is a thankless role as Thatcher’s daughter Carol; but Colman seizes on the opportunity to flesh out a strained mother-daughter relationship.
Lloyd, as one can see in her skilful manipulation of the otherwise completely synthetic, saccharine blockbuster Mamma Mia, is capable of orchestrating potentially difficult mass entertainment into a shiny product of value (remember that film was a musical based on who, of three men, is the father of Streep’s daughter Amanda Seyfried). Its thanks largely to her comparatively light touch that a largely reverential bio works well.
The only false note this reviewer finds with The Iron Lady is what seems like a lack of focus. We cover an awful lot of ground, too quickly. It might have helped for the writer to home in on one particular period of Maggie’s history and structure her themes and characters around that. The Falklands would have been the most obvious location to rest, but instead we get a whistle-stop tour around the big events of 50 years. And not in any thorough manner; we are left with entertaining sketches toward a life, rather than a full life itself. We get intimations of what makes the subject tick, then in double quick time we are hurtled off to another international catastrophe.