“We simply have to maximise your appeal” purr Margaret Thatcher’s advisors as they drop her voice and raise her hair to clinch the 1975 Conservative Party leadership, in this whip-smart and stylish but surprisingly breathless biopic.
Director Phyllida Lloyd’s controversial character study doesn’t shy away from giving an equally unsettling Maggie-makeover to the most dominant and divisive figure in post-war British politics.
Plagued by hallucinations of her long-dead husband Denis, Meryl Streep’s memorably haunted geriatric heroine shows us a softer, even – ye gods – sympathetic side of Thatcher, as encroaching dementia tips her out of the present day into vivid flashbacks that take her from Grantham grocer’s daughter to her glory years.
In this full-throttle feminist reappraisal of Mrs T’s outsize life, she’s portrayed as the Downing Street diva, with politics a stage where she successively battles Labour scorn, Tory snobbery in Ted Heath’s cabinet and rebellious ‘wets’ like Richard E Grant’s preening Michael Heseltine in her own party.
History rattles past as a sequence of operatically stylised snapshots of her key moments as Prime Minister, showing her shaken but unbowed by the Brighton bombing, and snapping out a stern order to sink the Belgrano during the Falklands War. There’s no bigger picture to find here, since Lloyd deliberately narrows the film’s focus to Thatcher’s point-of-view, albeit one with wit and bravado.
Abi Morgan’s script deftly tosses in regrets as well as respect, as Jim Broadbent’s gloriously playful phantom Denis goads Thatcher about the fierce ambition behind her sense of public duty, or shows up her patchy mothering of the overlooked Carol (a wonderfully strained Olivia Colman).
But alongside an epic clash like F rost/Nixon or The Queen ’s revelations, The Iron Lady ’s interweaving of a two-day crisis in Mrs Thatcher’s old age (chucking Denis’s clothes, reliving their fond, lifelong romance, grappling with mental decline) with the famous fights of her prime looks a bit ho-hum. Muting the present day’s sounds and colours while the ‘80s pop with brash colour and crashing confrontations only compounds its lopsidedness.
Stripped down, the story’s primarily an enjoyably shiny setting for Streep’s jaw-droppingly brilliant performance. Less an impersonation than an uncanny recreation (the ageing make-up is flawless), she captures Thatcher perfectly, from her hectoring heyday to her stubbornly steely dotage.
Underneath the immaculate carapace of hairspray, charisma and conviction politics, she creates a subtle, stress-riven portrait of a woman reckoning up an extraordinary life as unflinchingly as she lived it.