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Meryl Streep digs deep but The Iron Lady remains shallow

2 out of 4 stars


The Iron Lady is a performance in search of a film. The fact that the performer is the esteemed American diva Meryl Streep, and the subject is the contentious British icon Margaret Thatcher, adds up to a very good reason to see this picture.

Unfortunately, it's the only reason.

Hitting the accent hard with note-perfect emphasis, wearing the upswept do with metallic panache, and playing Thatcher over a 40-year span from her rise to the throne of power through her descent into the throes of dementia, La Streep puts on another superb acting clinic.

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But, thanks to a script muddled in intention and messy in structure, she's acting in a vacuum that eventually suffocates not only her but us too. In the end, we learn, and feel, nothing.

The two women principally behind the project, screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd, are intent on turning Thatcher into a modern-day Lear, although they seem perplexed themselves about the nature of the tragedy.

To that end, the movie opens in the present on a figurative heath, with old Maggie trapped in her London apartment and her abiding fantasies. There, amid the whispered concerns of caregivers, she enjoys a sociable breakfast with her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who, in her mind, remains alive and well and as twinklingly humorous as ever.

The rest of the narrative alternates between this ongoing plight and flashback remembrances of things past. Consequently, the life and career are made to unfold strictly from Thatcher's point of view, an expedient that apparently excuses the script from having any strong viewpoint itself.

Thus, the muddle. For example, Thatcher emerges in these frames as a feminist by default, the shopkeeper's daughter who bravely overcame the prejudices against her gender and class to conquer the privileged, chauvinistic domain of the Conservative Party. If such a feminist slant contradicts many of her policies and pronouncements, including the tactless remark made here to her daughter Carol that "I've always preferred the company of men," well, so be it. Examining this contradiction might have been illuminating; merely reciting it is not.

The entire film is like that, recitative yet shallow. On one hand, it wants to be a love story, with the always supportive Denis at the heart of the matter. On the other hand, hiding behind the subject's British reserve, it glosses over the impact her political career had on that love affair and on her children – the compromises and sacrifices exacted.

As for the politics themselves, the major events play like a checked-off list in a sidebar summary. First a backbencher. On to the cabinet. Now that surprising run for the leadership, where a dramatized vignette shows her advisers refashioning everything from her diction to her dress even while insisting, "Don't be anything other than what you are." Another contradiction, faithfully presented but then unexplored.

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Victory sees the nation's first female Prime Minister entering 10 Downing St. in lyrical slo-mo (not unsurprising from the director of Mamma Mia!), whereupon her controversial 11-year tenure is given the same check-list treatment: strikes, unemployment, cutbacks, bombings, war, popularity, poll tax, palace coup.

En route, the iron in the lady is simply offered as a given inherited from her father (albeit softened somewhat in Streep's empathetic portrayal). Worse, when her pluck is wrapped in the flag during the Falklands War, the script affords Thatcher a free pass to do on the screen precisely what she did in office – mouth platitudes like, "No British soldier will die in vain" and, later, imply that her little foreign escapade actually paid big domestic and global dividends. Suddenly, the economy is booming and the Cold War is ending – all thanks to preserving the pride of those precious English sheep.

Only back in the addled present is Streep able to inject a bit of poignancy into the portrait. But even there the writing lets her down, sacrificing realism for some contrived uplift, when the iron lady expels her phantom hubby with one more summoning of her iron will. Of course, it's a fantasy to suggest that sufferers of dementia can so readily close the doors on their fantasies, but that's perfectly in keeping with the tenor of this vacuum – the whole empty thing is utterly fantastic.

The Iron Lady

  • Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
  • Written by Abi Morgan
  • Starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent
  • Classification: PG

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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