The Iron Lady

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

For those expecting a political analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s cornerstone policies such as the Right to Buy scheme, The Iron Lady may disappoint.

But even though the film skims over some key political events, it is still fascinating. Meryl Streep gives an incredible performance as Thatcher, capturing her just as brilliantly at the height of her power as in the throes of dementia.

The decision to portray Thatcher suffering from dementia while she is still alive has exposed the film and its director Phyllida Lloyd to criticism.

But this unique perspective opens up the film’s scope to cover a host of themes such as ageing, loss of power and grief when it could have been much more narrowly focussed on politics.

The film opens with a disquieting scene in which a present-day Thatcher ventures out to buy groceries. Looking bewildered, frail and utterly out of place in a London cornershop, it is difficult to feel anything but compassion for her right away.

Our sympathies are more firmly secured as she breakfasts with her late husband Denis, who we soon realise exists only in her imagination.
His presence throughout the film – as friend, supporter and occasionally tormentor – is heartbreaking at times, and few could fail to be moved by a woman’s struggle to let go of her husband after 52 years of marriage.

Indeed, the film can be construed as the process of Thatcher letting go of her husband’s ghost – it begins with her agreeing to sort through his belongings and ends with her gathering the strength to finally say goodbye to him.

It is this grieving process which triggers a series of flashbacks, taking us through the former Prime Minister’s rise to power and fall from grace.

But many of her triumphs and struggles, such as the Falklands War and the Poll Tax riots, are documented in newsreel format, which may leave some viewers feeling short-changed. It fails to paint a detailed picture of the impact of Thatcher’s policies on the British people.

This is the woman who revolutionised the public as a nation of home buyers, yet the film barely mentions Right to Buy let alone Thatcher’s impact on the housing market and the effect of her economic policies on jobs, businesses and living standards.

For those who lived through the Thatcher years and have the scars to show for it, this could be too great an omission, particularly considering the film’s sympathetic depiction of Thatcher as a vulnerable old lady.

But for those who can put their politics aside – or who, like me, grew up in post-Thatcher Britain – the film is a fascinating portrayal of power, ageing and the steadfastness of love.

While some scenes were shocking and I can understand why many people despise Thatcher for her policies, one cannot deny her achievement in becoming Britain’s first and only female PM.

If that seems a remarkable achievement in 2012, when women are still hugely under-represented in politics, The Iron Lady highlights just how astonishing it was in the 1970s. When Thatcher came to power she was often, literally, the only woman in the room.

And for defying the weight of patriarchal history and a legion of old-boys’-club politicians to become a leader strong enough to go to war – and win – I have to admire her, whatever her politics.

Review by Tessa Norman