Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher
Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher
Olivia Colman as Carol
Alexandra Roach as Young Margaret Thatcher
Harry Lloyd as Young Denis Thatcher
Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe
Richard E. Grant as Michael Heseltine
Roger Allam as Gordon Reece
Teresa Mahoney as Downing Street Staff
Nicholas Farrell as Conservative advisor
Nick Dunning as James Prior
Julian Wadham as Francis Pym
Reginald Green as Ronald Reagan
Susan Brown as June
Michael Pennington as Michael Foot
Stephen Boxer as Keith Joseph
Hugh Ross as Christopher Soames
David Westhead as Reg Prentice
James Smith as Lord Carrington
Paul Bentley as Douglas Head
Jasper Jacob as Nicholas Edwardes
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Later in her years, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) sits in her apartment looking back on her life, both in her political career and her marriage to long-time love Denis (Jim Broadbent) who years after his death is still haunting her.
If anyone were to say to me that Meryl Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd would follow up their global hit “Mamma Mia!” by attempting an intimate portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, well let’s just say that I would probably check my calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1st. This reunion results in something more than a straight-forward biopic as Streep is unrecognizable as the elder Thatcher, a doddering old woman not fully in control of her faculties who reflects back on her entire life while being haunted by her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent).
Based around a solid screenplay by Abi Morgan, co-writer of Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” director Phylidda Lloyd does a much better job with this material than she did “Mamma Mia!” but for those of us living across the pond during Thatcher’s reign, there’s always a question of how much of what’s shown happened this way. It’s an interesting history lesson for sure, but it’s one that’s not particularly opinionated in terms of whether the filmmakers had any sort of opinion positive or negative about their subject. It’s also hard to separate the facts from conjecture, because like Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” the film deals with so much of Thatcher’s life that only she would know what really happened.
The first time we see Streep on screen, she’s entirely unrecognizable, her face covered in centimeters of latex, but it’s quite evident she has Thatcher’s accent and mannerisms down pat, especially during her glory years where she carries herself with such confidence it’s hard to believe the same actress is playing both incarnations of this powerful woman. The contrast between Streep as the elder Thatcher reflecting back on her entire life, all alone and really making us feel that loneliness, and seeing her at her prime proves unequivocally what a great talent like Streep brings to the mix.
As much as this is about Streep, flashback scenes are also well done with the younger Margaret Roberts portrayed by Alexandra Roach, as we watch her graduate from Oxford as an outspoken young woman whose opinions are frowned upon by the men around her, meeting the younger Denis (played by Harry Lloyd) before getting into Parliament in 1959. The transition from Roach to Streep is quite seamless, essentially taking place during her political years before running for Prime Minister. Comparisons to movies like “The King’s Speech” are somewhat more flagrant when you watch scenes of Thatcher being coached to prepare for her run for Prime Minister.
Lloyd creates an interesting contrast between the scenes with the elder Thatcher alone in her apartment, something that plays much like a one-woman show to the flashbacks, including newsreel footage to the time, and the filmmakers seem to really have a handle on the arc of Thatcher’s rise and fall among the people of Britain as she deals with the IRA, the Falklands War and introducing unpopular taxes.
The present day stuff gets a little tiring as we watch Thatcher, seemingly suffering from a combination of dementia and grief as she interacts with the spirit of her husband, played by Jim Broadbent, yet still having enough wherewithal to give flowery speeches to anyone who will listen including her doctor.
The problem with such a powerful performance is that it tends to overshadow everyone around her, and other than Broadbent and Olivia Colman as their daughter, it’s hard to really pay much notice to anyone else. There are so many ministers and politicos around Thatcher who are never properly introduced and they all seem like interchangeable faces offering her advice or contesting some of her political decisions. Eventually, Thatcher makes enemies of her own party so it isn’t that big a surprise when they figure out a way of ousting her, although there’s then a fairly large gap between her leaving 10 Downing Street and retiring to the flat where we spend so much time with her.
Overall, the film looks grand with Thomas Newman’s score doing a lot to tie the present and past together, as does the recurring use of “Shall We Dance?” from “The King and I” which adds another layer to the film’s exploration of reflection and reminiscing to the past. It’s so much stronger than Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” which essentially tried to achieve the same type of goal.
The Bottom Line:
As much as “The Iron Lady” attempts to mirror “The Queen” or “The King’s Speech” in the way they got into the minds of people in power, in this case spending as much time with Thatcher after losing power, the only thing that puts this on par with those films is the performance by Meryl Streep, who once again proves to be working on another plane than the actors around her. Even so, it’s a well-crafted film that will probably fare better among those who don’t have their own preconceived opinions about Thatcher and her policies.