The Iron Lady–Movie Review

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4 Stars

For a British biopic The Iron Lady is unusually controversial. It’s not that Margaret Thatcher is not a suitable subject for a biopic. I think that any reasonable person would have to acknowledge that she was the most powerful and influential woman of the 20th century, a far more important figure than the subjects of The Queen or The King’s Speech. But perhaps it is a bit early. Thatcher remains such a bitterly divisive figure that any movie about her would be likely to provoke outrage from either those who revere her or those who hate her. This movie, though it is quite well done in many ways, seems to have annoyed both sides.

The movie shows us an elderly Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), old and confused, getting up early to buy milk from the market and make breakfast for her husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent) who has actually been dead for eight years. As we get to know her Margaret seems more haunted than demented. She is aware in principle that Dennis is dead but she can’t stop seeing and hearing him. Of course this leads to a series of flashbacks which contain the meat of the story.

The young Margaret (played in the flashbacks by Alexandra Roach) entered politics believing that the Conservative Party should champion the middle class values that she had learned from her father (Iain Glen) who was a grocer and a small-town political activist. Unfortunately the Conservative Party was run by a bunch of upper class toffs who cared little for middle class values and thought the idea of a young woman running for Parliament was quite amusing. Turning the party into an institution that could be led by a grocer’s daughter was one of the many seemingly insurmountable obstacles that she was to overcome. (Though the fact that the current Prime Minister is a bit of a toff suggests that she was not completely successful.)

Anyone hoping for a detailed explanation of her success will probably be disappointed. The movie gives us a quick tour of the highlights of her career as a member of Parliament, cabinet secretary, party leader, and finally the longest serving Prime Minster of the 20th century. I’m not sure how much more we could expect in a 105-minute movie, but this movie in any case chooses to focus most of it’s attention on Margaret Thatcher the person, which necessarily gets it into fairly speculative territory.

Everyone agrees that she was a tough character. She would have to be tough and decisive to do what she did. Perhaps in the end this degenerated into a sort of megalomania. We see her near the end of her career shamelessly bullying and humiliating the leaders of her cabinet. Unsurprisingly they turn on her as soon as her declining poll ratings make is safe and expedient to do so.

If we are to believe the movie, Margaret Thatcher at the end of her life does not regret for a moment a single one of her policy decisions but is haunted by the fear that she neglected her husband and children. If true I think it shows a lack of proportion. Obviously her family would have gotten more from her if she had devoted herself to being a full-time housewife, but she made it clear to Dennis before she agreed to marry him that she was not cut out for that sort of life. Being Prime Minister, or even leader of the opposition, is a demanding full-time job. If she really made Dennis breakfast every morning that suggests that her family probably got more attention from her than the family of the current Prime Minister gets from him.