The Iron Lady
A portrait of Margaret Thatcher from colossus to recluse is
distinguished by Meryl Streep's superb central performance
By Philip France
In his mid-19th-century poem "A Psalm of Life", Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote: "Lives of great men all remind us/ We can make our lives sublime/ And departing leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time." This was the kind of thinking that underlay the inspirational movies produced by Warner Brothers in the 1930s for which Variety coined the term "biopic" ? films about medical pioneers, democratic revolutionaries and other movers and shakers who changed the world, invariably men (MGM's Madame Curie was a rare exception).
But suddenly, in 1941, Orson Welles entered the scene with Citizen Kane, a picture that fractured chronological narrative and constantly changed points of view while presenting a lightly fictionalised, highly critical life of the press tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The biopic was never the same again, and even in commonplace films about pop stars it became necessary to expose flaws and epiphanic Rosebud moments. In The Iron Lady, the director Phyllida Lloyd and the screenwriter Abi Morgan submit Margaret Thatcher to theCitizen Kane treatment, though the approach now seems as conventional as the Warner Brothers straitjacket.
Citizen Kane purported to be about the recently deceased Charles Foster Kane, though this did not prevent the very-much-alive Hearst and his powerful friends from taking against the film and seeking, with a certain temporary success, to suppress it. Welles included scenes of a demented, senile Kane, alone and lamenting his lost power in his remote castle of Xanadu, but he also showed his hero through the eyes of a variety of people, some hostile, some openly admiring. In The Iron Lady the central figure is no fiction. She's the most famous, most controversial living Englishwoman, a reclusive widow now known to be in poor health and not entirely in command of her mental faculties, but who still hovers over all our lives. Virtually everything and everybody in the movie is shown through her distorted vision as her faulty memory calls up her past during a period of 24 hours or so in the past couple of years (it's not clear precisely which year). We first see her in a small, cluttered convenience store, an image of a decaying Britain. Frail and doddering, she's given her carers the slip and nipped down the street to buy a carton of milk for her husband, Denis (a somewhat misdirected Jim Broadbent). Though some eight years dead, he's haunting her day and night. The purchase of milk (which she notes as overpriced) will remind most older viewers of her cancelling school milk when secretary of state for education in Edward Heath's cabinet in the early 1970s. Thus from the opening moment the movie slyly throws little darts at what emerges generally as an admiring portrait. The octogenarian Thatcher is being visited by her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman), a brisk, lisping, confident presence, both loving and somewhat resentful. She's come to help her dispose of Denis's clothes which have been cluttering Margaret's central London home. The first flashbacks (triggered by the Freudian slip of signing her memoirs "Margaret Roberts") deal with her teenage life in Grantham, daughter of the thrifty, self-sufficient grocer alderman Roberts. The second set (touched off by confusing a present-day dinner party with a 1950 meeting with the patronising, upper-crust Conservative constituency committee in Dartford) concern her entry into politics and meeting the successful businessman Denis Thatcher, who was to offer her security, enabling her to switch from scientific research to the law and eventually fathering her twins. In these early scenes Thatcher is played convincingly by Alexandra Roach as a gauche, aggressive, lower-middle-class provincial girl. Here we encounter the two key figures in her life: the influential father and the supportive husband. "I've always preferred the company of men," she says (women friends are notably absent), but these are the only two she doesn't dominate. Then there's a sudden switch in the 1970s when the two parts of Meryl Streep's altogether remarkable impersonation come together ? Thatcher in pathetically touching old age and Thatcher in her political prime as party leader and world stateswoman. It's at this point that the best sequences occur when her admirer, the Tory MP Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), and her svengali, the TV guru Gordon Reece (Roger Allam), take her in hand.They give her a makeover in The King's Speechmanner, creating the Iron Lady who over the next 15 years will dominate Britain in a familiar divisive way. Eventually, the film-makers suggest, Thatcher's increasing isolation, brought about by her rigidity, singlemindedness, inability to accept advice and contempt for most of her colleagues, brings about a form of madness that foreshadows the Lear-like dementia ("I will not go mad") that infects her dotage. Subsequently the script packs too much in, briefly touching every possible base from Brixton and Brighton to Goose Green and the miners' strike. Nothing is examined or analysed, little is illuminated in any revealing way, and because everything is seen from her distorted perspective there is no countervailing moral, political, historical force or argument. But what we do have is a study of the process of ageing, fading powers, doubt, disappointment and loss that will come to most of us if we stay the course, and a stunning performance from Meryl Streep to set alongside her Isak Dinesen and Julia Child. Breathtaking in its detail and nuance, its subtle gestures and inflections, this multifaceted jewel of a portrait is altogether grander than the commonplace setting of the film.
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