Margaret Thatcher (Streep), now in her eighties, has finally resolved to clear out her dead husband Denis (Broadbent) clothes and thus finally release his ghost. As she does so, she is hit by a flurry of memories of her extraordinary and controversia
When Phyllida Lloyd - of Mamma Mia! fame — was quizzed about the politics of The Iron Lady, her entirely and deliberately subjective Margaret Thatcher pic, she replied that that’s “a bit like asking, ‘Did you approve of King Lear’s politics?’” Erm, no it isn’t, Phyllida. Not really.
The inescapable fact is that — for all the boldness of its structural approach — this country still aches from the impact of Thatcher’s rule. There are many who will never forgive her for what she did (the mines, the Falklands, the poll tax, and that’s just the half of it) — just as there are many who still praise her strength, and applaud her emphasis on conviction rather than compromise. Whichever way you lean, there will be baggage taken into British cinemas. That is simply not comparable with going to a performance of Lear. To think otherwise is, at best, wishful.
Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan’s decision to try and disengage with Thatcherism, to focus on the woman and to frame her career via the fractured memories conjured by an elderly Thatcher as she tries to exorcise the ghost of her beloved husband, is ultimately the film’s weakness. It plays like one long montage, a Greatest Hits featuring only each song’s chorus — and one which, while not relentlessly lionising her (we see protests, riots and snatches of her autocratic style), certainly reinforces the Thatcher myth to the Baroness’ benefit.
That is its weakness. You can easily guess its strength. Yes: Streep. Meryl realises Maggie with almost terrifying fidelity, both at the height of her power, and in her twilight days. The actress who did ABBA-karaoke for Lloyd in their last collaboration goes leagues beyond impersonation here; she so inhabits the role, she may as well claim squatter’s rights.
It’s a shame that another great performance — Jim Broadbent as valued foil Denis — gets sidelined. And even more of a shame that their relationship, the most interesting element (if you want to push the politics to the background), is so unsatisfyingly presented, unmoored as it is from a chronological arc. It would be a welcome thing indeed if both actors — and Olivia Colman, excellent as daughter Carol — could be cast again in an alternative Thatcher movie by a different, spikier director. Oliver Stone perhaps?
One of Streeps finest-ever performances. But beyond that whatever Morgan and Lloyds intentions its little more than a myth-enshrining exercise.