Updated: Tuesday, 11th August 2020 @ 4:38pm

Cinema review: The Iron Lady

Cinema review: The Iron Lady

By Mancunian Matters staff

Like the lady herself, any movie about Margaret Thatcher was always going to split opinions.

Could any review account for the political bias that a reviewer may harbour before even seeing it? MM decided there was no way around it, and so we are providing you with both sides of the political map.

MM’s Henry Hill, voted the UK's top Conservative and right wing student blogger in 2011, gives us the view from the right, and our Kieran Agnew comes at it from slightly more left of the field.

They wrote each review separately, though did manage to sit together through the screening without any major dramas…

MM saw The Iron Lady courtesy of Cornerhouse.


The view from the Hill: Henry Hill's review of The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher was peerless. Her ability to capture not just the traits but, somehow, the burning inner fire that drove Lady Thatcher allowed her to inhabit the role in a way few actors can.

A shame then, that her performance was wasted on this ill-conceived disappointment.

The eleven years of Lady Thatcher’s premiership, and the tumultuous decade that preceded them, were fraught, exciting times.

The raw, emotive power of such events as the Winter of Discontent, Miner’s Strike, Falkland’s War and Brighton bombing are wonderfully captured in short, carefully rationed bursts of colour and cinematic energy that leave the audience breathless.

Yet these are few and far between. Instead of creating anything so normal (and straightforwardly enjoyable) as a biopic of Lady Thatcher’s life and times, director Phyllida Lloyd set out to make a much more self-consciously ‘significant’ film about old age and the loss of power.

Instead of following the narrative course of her life, the major events of her life are introduced in the form of jumbled flashbacks induced while an elderly Lady T wanders around her grey and empty home, like Christmas decorations on a dead tree.

This narrative conceit has several problems. The first is simply that it is deeply boring to watch – the audience is left counting the grey, uncomfortable minutes between the stretches of film which contain the powerful, combative Thatcher we came to see.

Second, it shies away from her politics. It is all very well not having an agenda, but more than most Lady Thatcher was one who valued ideas over sentiment – the film even puts these words in her mouth.

Yet while the film shows a young Margaret insisting that she does not wish to be defined by her principles and not domestic life, the film then proceeds to focus almost exclusively on the latter.

Perversely, at one point the young Margaret insists that she ‘does not want to die washing a cup’ yet the film’s closing shot is an elderly Margaret washing a cup.

I’ve no idea what that was supposed to convey, but ‘there’s no escape’ is the only message that springs to mind.

Finally, there’s the hubris involved in a screenwriter – who has not had cooperation from Lady Thatcher or those close to her – trying to put herself into the dementia-plagued head of an elderly public figure.

Jim Broadbent’s Denis Thatcher, in life a quiet and utterly dependable pillar of support, is transformed by Abi Morgan’s screenplay into a sort of prosecutorial jester, holding her to account for the alleged neglect of her family life.

In another shot after she is first elected to parliament, she is seen driving away from the desperate pleas of her children.

In fact, for a film so often accused of trying to turn Lady Thatcher into a feminist icon, it spends an awful lot of time damning her neglect of the maternal role.

So there it is: short bursts of poignant, powerful cinema set amongst long stretches of speculative character assassination

See it for Streep, and to mourn the film that might have been. 


Agnew's appraisal: Kieran Agnew's review of The Iron Lady

Considering its subject is one of the most divisive conviction politicians of the last century, loved and reviled in almost equal measure, The Iron Lady is surprisingly light on actual political content.

The focus instead seems to be on a fictitious imagining of how Thatcher appears today, battling dementia whilst stumbling through her Belgravia home, dodging meddlesome carers and struggling to exorcise the ghost of her beloved Dennis.

It seems remiss, and certainly irresponsible, to use such a simplistic narrative tool to humanise the woman who brought British industry to its knees.

I also doubt it is a depiction the Iron Lady would welcome herself.

The film-makers perhaps believed this to be a shrewd way to juxtapose Thatcher’s often damaging bloody-mindedness while in power with the supposed damaged figure of today, smirking in half-recalled amusement about the Falklands conflict as she glances at a toy soldier.

The film is no disaster; it just could have done so much more with what it had at its disposal.

Meryl Streep’s performance in the central role is as impressive as all the reviews would have you believe.

She is almost note perfect when capturing Thatcher’s distinctive nasal trill and flawless in affecting the airs and movements of a woman never shy of her own surety.  

But instead of allowing Streep to use Abi Morgan’s script to exercise her faultless rendition of Maggie in her pomp, we are instead brought back time and time again to the shambling, forgetful 2011 version.

Thatcher’s time in office is, in fact, the most gripping and fast-paced element of the film.

However the way in which it is framed is certainly a little odd and perhaps more pertinently just plain misjudged.

She is portrayed almost as a feminist icon, breaking down the wall of Westminster suits as her bright blue pill-box hat bobs through the corridors of power.

While she was undoubtedly a moderniser it is a stretch even for Hollywood to portray a woman who, by her own admission always preferred the company of men, as a right-on sister crashing down barriers.

It frustrates too in its unwillingness to focus further on Thatcher’s policies of privatization, financial de-regulation and commitment to free market economics.

The devastating unemployment figures and social unrest that accompanied these policies are seen only in archive news footage.

How salient it could have been with regards the incumbent Westminster administration to make more play of this part of the Thatcher story, as it still represents the most vivid memories many have of the rule of the Iron Lady.  

The Iron Lady was released today, and you can see it at Cornerhouse. Visit here for details.