The Iron Lady | Director Phyllida Lloyd | Score: 6.5
The lioness in winter. The story of Maggie Thatcher’s rise from shy grocer’s daughter to leader of the Tories and first female Prime Minister of Britain throughout the ’80s would be compelling enough in of itself for a biopic treatment, but Phyllida Lloyd’s film goes much further than that. In its depiction of a half-mad and hallucinating elderly Maggie, played perfectly by Meryl Streep, conversing with her late husband (played by Jim Broadbent) and trying like hell to hold onto the ever-smaller tatters of her previously whip-smart mind, the film becomes an aching portrayal of all that we lose when we dare to grow old.
In fact, as much as audiences might keen for more of the old Maggie, unconscionable as she might have been, rising past the inherent sexism of her time and taking power by fighting back at the unctuous men of parliament smirking all around her, the film reflexively returns us to the well-appointed but lonely flat in which the old woman now resides, presiding over glossy dinners with her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) and assorted other dignitaries, and trying to reconcile being alone again after many decades of marriage. We see snippets of her early years at Oxford and finally winning her first MP election in 1959, but the majority of the film focuses on her time as the Prime Minister, taking over a country ravaged by an economic slump, badgered by union shut downs, and a population whose morale was in serious need of rejuvenating. Much as Ronald Reagan swept into office and instigated his trickle-down economics that created a sudden thrush of a young middle class with too much money and even greater hardships for the poor, Thatcher’s England was locked in a battle for its soul, either as an empathetic socialist-tinged society or a hard-luck, boot-strapped fiefdom.
It says something about the film that it can take a rancorous and largely unpopular public figure and put a human enough face on her that we are forced almost against our will to recalibrate our convictions, if only slightly (though I shudder in anticipation of the first Reagan bio-pic film to offer us that same opportunity), and mostly because of her wretchedness in the face of her old age. It also helps the film a great deal to have the brilliant Streep as its main focus; not only does she faithfully reproduce the high-pitched Victorian lilt that so defined Thatcher, she peers deeply into the woman’s soul, and damned if she doesn’t find a great deal to respect in her reportage. It’s not that the film avoids Thatcher’s many warts — not the least of which is her arrogant desire for power in lieu of properly taking her family into account — including the ridiculous Falkland Islands war with Argentina that resulted in nearly 1000 deaths for a set of rocks off the coast of South America that could hardly be deemed worth the fuss, but it takes them in deference to the many things she did accomplish, even as a proto-feminist, she seemed to delight in ramming her conservative values and harshness down the throats of the bedraggled British underclasses. And yet, the visage of her alone in her bedroom, surrounded by the empty suits of her late husband still brings us a pang of sympathy. She might have been a monster as a leader, but in the end, she’s gotten old and frail just like everyone else.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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