It's perhaps a little perverse to complain that a biopic gets too close to the character of the person that it's about. But that's my main problem with The Iron Lady: a film about the life of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that relies far too heavily on a fictionalised account of what the filmmakers think Thatcher might have been like in private, at the expense of giving us any great insight into her public and political career.
Framed by present-day scenes that show an elderly Thatcher reflecting on her life, the film immediately made me feel uncomfortable by portraying her as extremely disoriented, suffering from severe dementia and haunted by hallucinations of her dead husband, Denis. Whilst we know that Thatcher did suffer from this kind of illness towards the end of her life, the way it's depicted here - and the extent to which it affects her - feels like it's been completely invented by director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan.
It's suggested that Thatcher has trouble distinguishing the past from the present, hears voices, sees 'ghosts', doesn't remember that her children are now grown-up, and generally behaves like an out-of-touch and mentally-ill old woman. Whilst it's possible that this was true in her later years, these aren't details that were ever made public about Thatcher - and it immediately starts to ring warning bells that the filmmakers might be letting their dramatic licence get in the way of a faithful biopic.
Because it's not as though there isn't enough meat in Thatcher's life story to make for a good movie without having to invent things. As Britain's first female Prime Minister, she oversaw such crucial political events as the miners' strikes, the Brixton riots, the Falklands war and the poll tax - as well as making waves in her own party to such an extent that she ultimately triggered a leadership contest whilst she was still in office. But sadly, much of this is skipped over far too quickly, almost as an afterthought .
And when these matters are finally given a bit of screentime, they're beset by minor errors and a lack of correct chronology that further obscures the most important events of her premiership for anyone who might be hoping to learn about them. There's also a frustrating lack of detail that leaves many significant episodes of Thatcher's life unresolved: for example, despite finishing its account of her career with the leadership contest that ultimately deposed her, we're never actually told the final outcome of that contest - and we barely get to see her successor, John Major, depicted in the film at all.
So what are the film's redeeming features? Well, despite the weaknesses in the script that I've already touched upon, the movie is almost - but not quite - saved by some fine performances from all of its leads. Most notably, of course, Meryl Streep completely transforms herself to play an uncannily convincing version of Thatcher that manages to reign itself in from the exaggerated hyperbole that could so easily have accompanied the role. Rather than trying to do a straight impersonation of Thatcher, Streep instead gives us a very believable impression of her, and effectively turns her into a three-dimensional person (rather than a caricature) through some unexpectedly human touches.
Of course, it's easiest to compare Streep to the genuine article during the scenes that focus on actual recorded events (which the actress presumably studied to prepare for the role). But it's also surprising to note just how realistic the more private scenes feel, too, especially when it comes to her interactions with her family. Whilst I've already stated my problems with including so much invented personal detail in the film, Streep almost manages to sell us on it through the strength of her performance alone.
And the supporting cast is excellent, too: Thatcher's husband Denis is played wonderfully by Jim Broadbent, who strikes a daring balance between absurd buffoonery and disturbing darkness - especially during the scenes in which he appears to his widow in spectral form. In these scenes, Broadbent manages to offset Denis' goofy charm with a more sinister side, hinting at a more complex character than most audiences will imagine from the man's public appearances in real life.
And Olivia Coleman (perhaps best known as Sophie from Channel 4's 'Peep Show') is also excellent as Carol Thatcher, bringing some heartfelt angst to the scenes in which she deals with her mother's illness, but without ever pushing things so far that they become saccharine or overly sentimental. Add a couple of scene-stealing cameos from the likes of Richard E. Grant (as Michael Heseltine, which turns out to be an inspired choice), and you have a truly impressive cast that almost manages to overcome the film's other problems.
Almost. Because no matter how good the cast is, they can't quite outweigh the sense that this dramatisation of Thatcher's autumn years leans too heavily on invented scenarios and imagined dialogue, and doesn't give enough credence to the real-life events that were so critical to her success as a politician and her management of the UK. I was no fan of Thatcher's politics, but she was undeniably one of the most important British political figures of the 20th century - and from a historical point of view, it simply doesn't feel as though this film does her justice.
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Please note this is a region 2 DVD and will require a region 2 (Europe) or region Free DVD Player in order to play. Two-time Oscar-winner Meryl Streep steps into the role of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in this biopic from director Phyllida Lloyd (MAMMA MIA!), and screenwriter Abi Morgan (TSUNAMI: THE AFTERMATH, BRICK LANE). Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, and Anthony Head co-star.
Biopic starring Meryl Streep in an Oscar-winning performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher's life and political career are portrayed in flashback from the perspective of her later years as she struggles with Alzheimer's disease and grieves for her recently-deceased husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent). The film traces her life from her childhood years in the family grocer's shop through to her graduation from Oxford, her early working life and her decision to enter politics. Her eleven-year stint in office is marked not only by her strictly conservative and hard-nosed leadership style, which earn her the nickname 'The Iron Lady', but also by spending cuts, strikes, the introduction of an unpopular poll tax and the Falklands War. Later, as her premiership is called into question, her previously loyal cabinet members - including Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) and Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) - turn against her one by one, leading ultimately to her political downfall in 1990. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Make-Up.